In the last ten years, the media industry in Somalia has seen significant growth, however, in the last couple of months, independent media organisations and journalists have been silenced through attacks, killings and restrictions by Al-Shabaab militants and government authorities. This is according to Mohamed Ibrahim Bulbul, a Mogadishu-based journalist and press freedom activist.
Bulbul says the limited press freedom and continued attacks on journalists and the media “has made Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist or press freedom activist”. Bulbul has been a journalist since 2016 and primarily reports on politics, and conflicts including Al-Shabaab attacks and corruption. Bulbul said that being a journalist in Somalia was “life or death because we are targeted by Al-Shabaab and the country’s security forces deliberately and we cannot work freely”
According to Reporters without Borders: “Al-Shabaab attacks journalists who do not practice self-censorship. The terrorist group is the main killer of journalists. Reporters also run the risk of arrest and arbitrary detention – 34 in 2021 alone – as well as torture and media shut-downs”.
Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, secretary-general for the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) said that journalists who report on Al-Shabaab will receive threats via text messages. He added that journalists will receive text messages from the militant group which notifies when the journalist will be killed – and this could be in four hours, a day, a week, or a month. “When a journalist receives that message, they are forced to leave the country,” said Mumin. He said the majority of journalists that have been killed were by the militant group.
According to the SJS, in 2021 two journalists were killed, three journalists injured, 65 journalists were arbitrarily detained, and seven media houses were raided. “For the seventh year in a row, Somalia has maintained the ignominious world title for impunity towards crimes against journalists as journalists’ killers roam free,” said the SJS.
Hassan Istiila, a freelance journalist based in Somalia said: “I have estimated that I have received more than 20 death threats since I began working as a professional reporter in Somalia”. “Pressure on journalists can come from many sides – authorities, armed private individuals, and Al-Shabab who want to silence the media. Due to these aspects, some journalists leave the country and prefer to live in exile. Being a journalist is a dangerous job in Somalia. The police will at times block me from travelling to certain streets on my way to work and I am unable to go out during rallies due to security concerns,” he said.
Want to stay up to date with the latest journalism and media innovation news from the African continent? Subscribe to our newsletter.
Istiila, who has been a journalist since 2007 and mainly reports on security and politics, said “Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world”.
He said there is a lack of access to information in Somalia making it challenging for him to get information from government officials. Istiila said that for the last few years, the government has not held live press conferences but pre-recorded videos and audio messages which were distributed to the media. Journalists are unable to question the government and he is worried that the incoming government will continue pre-recording messages and journalists will be unable to engage with the government.
Mumin emphasised that the lack of accessibility to information means that journalists are unable to investigate corruption and human rights violations. He said that before the civil war in Somalia, the country had only one media house which was controlled by the government but the end of the war gave an opportunity for the establishment of media houses. He added that despite Somalia having a vibrant media with the majority of media houses being independently owned, the government’s use of laws to restrict and limit journalists means that journalists are unable to report and work freely.
Ahmed Cadde, a freelance journalist, has had a different experience and has described his 10 years as a journalist as great. “It’s exciting meeting new people and interviewing public figures. I have not run into many challenges so far besides the security issue”.
“The Somalia media landscape is not restricted and just about anybody can be a journalist. Especially now with the invention of the smartphone, many young people have begun to take their phones and report on whatever they see”. However, he noted that “there are many safety concerns, many journalists report on Al-Shabaab and so there is always a chance of being targeted by them. There are also some state governments such as Puntland and Somaliland who believe in censorship and arrest journalists who report on things they don’t like”. Cadde said that the government needs to ensure the safety of journalists and that journalists are not harassed by government officials.
Istiila said that media freedom needs to be improved in the country. In some parts of the country, journalists are allowed to cover stories that are critical of the government, because the country has a federal government system. “When the state and the federal government are at odds, journalists are put under pressure, obliged to remain silent or fearful. Journalists generally avoid reporting terrorist incidents and corruption out of fear. Investigative journalists are uncommon in this town,” said Istiila.
The plight of women
Mumin said that young journalists easily quit the profession because of a lack of employment rights, low pay and safety concerns. He said that the intimidation and attacking of journalists have also moved online with many key journalists and media houses facing cyberattacks. He said women journalists were particularly vulnerable as they face self-censorship – some women will avoid reporting on specific topics out of fear.
“Being a woman journalist in Somalia is extremely difficult and there are serious challenges surrounding women journalists,” said Safia Muhamed Ibraahim, who has been a journalist for four years. She says that it is difficult for women journalists to find a job, as women are not prioritised in the media industry and are poorly paid.
Muhamed Ibraahim said she avoids issues related to security, Al-Shabaab, or stories involving investigations of corruption “because it is a risk to my life”. “Many journalists were killed in Somalia for reporting on these topics. Furthermore, human rights violations are difficult to report on by journalists, and not being able to talk about corruption or trying to hold those in power accountable is a big challenge that we face as journalists in Somalia. This has discouraged many women and therefore they easily quit the profession.”
She said that more needs to be done in terms of media freedom as it is limited and “journalists are targeted for their reporting and impunity for crimes against journalists has made the country the worst place to be a journalist”.
The Federation of Somali Journalists (FESOJ) released a report which was conducted between May 2021 and May 2022 which found that 37 journalists suffered violent beatings, injuries, or harassment. According to Ahmed Ali Mohamed, FESOJ training officer, “six journalists and media workers in various regions reported to FESOJ about direct threats to their lives, including regular harassment by local authority officials – in most cases, these were reprisals related to their journalistic reporting”.
“The media law is extremely restrictive and allows the government to have firm control on the media and censor independent journalists. Journalists are arrested over any critical reporting. The use of the penal code is also a challenge facing our work as journalists,” said Muhamed Ibraahim.
Fathi Mohamed Ahmed, deputy editor for Bilan Media, has been a journalist for nine years. “It is very difficult to be a woman journalist in Somalia. As a woman you face harassment and there is a lack of freedom of expression.” She said that women are not taken seriously, explaining that women journalists are only given opportunities to be news anchors and are unable to explore other aspects of journalism.
“Safety is very rare,” said Ahmed. She laments that when reporting out in the field, people will question her and say that as a woman she should find another job that is more suitable. In addition, Ahmed says people do not take women seriously, with some interviewees telling her that they prefer to be interviewed by a man.
Bilan Media is Somalia’s only all-women media team. Ahmed said Somali media mainly covers politics and conflicts, and they want to change the narrative by focusing on other issues such as climate change, entrepreneurship, and gender-based violence.
Ahmed says the lack of media freedom in Somalia means that she is unable to report on specific topics due to security and safety concerns.
Despite Somalia having a vibrant media and the majority of media houses being independent, the restrictions and laws placed by the government and the attacks that journalists face from Al-Shabaab mean that journalists cannot freely report and work safely.