"Like fish in poisonous waters": Report documents attacks on Somali journalists



    "Like fish in poisonous waters": Report documents attacks on Somali journalists

    May 5, Mogadishu: Both the Somali government and the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab are using abusive tactics to sway media coverage, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on World Press Freedom Day.

    The government should act decisively to end intimidation and violence against journalists by state security forces and Al-Shabab militants. Somalis' need for a free and vibrant media is especially important in light of the electoral process planned for 2016.

    The 74-page report, “'Like Fish in Poisonous Waters': Attacks on Media Freedom in Somalia,” documents killings, threats, and arbitrary detention of journalists since 2014. The Somali federal government and regional authorities have used various abusive tactics to affect media coverage, including arrests and forced closures of media outlets, threats, and occasionally, criminal charges. Al-Shabab has targeted journalists as part of its campaign against the Somali government and for reporting deemed unfavorable. Government authorities have failed to adequately investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses, leaving journalists to live in fear.

    “Media freedom shouldn't be yet another fatality in Somalia,” said Laetitia Bader, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “On top of the long-term threats from Al-Shabab, the new government is increasing the danger and repression for journalists at the very time when their services are most needed.”

    Both Al-Shabab and the Somali government and its allies have sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of the largely unpaid and inexperienced journalists throughout the country's long conflict, Human Rights Watch found. Each side has pressured journalists about their reporting, manipulated casualty figures, and obstructed reporting, greatly affecting the media environment. Dozens of journalists have fled into exile over the last decade.

    While Al-Shabab has posed the main threat to the media, journalists have come under attack from a range of state and non-state actors. A journalist in Galkayo, Puntland, said: “The authorities, the public, and the militants are all hostile to us. We are like fish in poisonous waters, we can be attacked or killed at any time.”

    Human Rights Watch interviewed 50 journalists, editors, and media directors working across south-central Somalia and Puntland. Since 2014, 10 journalists have been killed – four in apparent targeted attacks – and six journalists have survived assassination attempts. Others have been injured while reporting. Dozens have been arbitrarily detained, a handful prosecuted, and scores have received threatening phone calls and text messages warning them to change their reporting or face consequences.

    One journalist who survived an attack in Mogadishu in October 2014, had no doubt he was the target: “I could hear several voices telling the shooter to aim better. I could hear them saying, 'He is still alive!'” He was wounded so seriously that he can no longer work as a reporter.

    Government officials have regularly sought to justify restrictions on media freedom by claiming that the media are acting unprofessionally or on national security grounds. Notwithstanding the difficult security and political context, the authorities have tried to curtail legitimate news coverage using tactics that often place journalists at risk of reprisals, Human Rights Watch found.

    Al-Shabab unlawfully treats journalists, who are civilians under the laws of war, as extensions of the Somali government or foreign military forces. The group has used threats and violence against journalists to coerce positive coverage.

    Female journalists face additional problems. They contend with social and cultural restrictions, discrimination by their peers, and targeted threats from Al-Shabab, who seek to curtail women's participation in public affairs.

    Somali journalists say they often respond to threats, intimidation, and violence with self-censorship. Many steer clear of reporting on sensitive issues – including security, corruption, and political processes particularly linked to federalism.

    Somalia's government leaders should unequivocally condemn attacks against journalists and media workers and carry out prompt, transparent, and impartial investigations, Human Rights Watch said. They should commit to full, open reporting on issues of pressing public interest and amend or revoke laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression and the media. International donors should press the Somali government to protect journalists from abuse, review relevant laws, and provide technical assistance to ensure rights-respecting criminal investigations.

    “Promises to improve media freedoms are a positive step but not enough,” Bader said. “Somalia's authorities need to actively address violence and intimidation from all sides so that journalists can go to work without constantly looking over their shoulder.”
     
    The Oslo Times/IFEX

     
     

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