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Media watchdog groups are condemning a ban placed on the Voice of America's Somali news service by the government of the semi-autonomous Puntland region in northeast Somalia. Three reporters connected to the VOA Somali service were also ordered to cease their journalist activities.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the Mogadishu-based National Union of Somali Journalists, and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders are all decrying the unexpected move to ban the VOA broadcasts in Puntland.
In a directive issued Thursday by Puntland's Ministry of Security, local radio stations were barred indefinitely from airing reports from the VOA Somali service.
The same day, the region's Ministry of Information suspended the activities of three reporters who act as correspondents for the news service, as well as "anyone else attempting to do reporting for VOA within the Puntland region."
At the moment, local radio stations continue to broadcast VOA's English service programs as the ban is interpreted as targeting only the news agency's Somali language service.
Step politically motivated, says media watchdog
The head of the Africa desk for Reporters Without Borders, Ambroise Pierre, described the move as "surprising" and expressed frustration over the vagueness offered to justify such an extreme action.
But he said that the step is believed be politically motivated.
"Our understanding when we ask journalists from there and people in Puntland is that it might be political. Last week the VOA Somali service interviewed the chairman of Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama'a in Puntland, and we know that the Puntland authorities view him as a rival, so it is an allegation, but it might be linked to this affair," said Pierre.
The Ministry of Security accused the VOA Somali service in the directive of contributing to "destabilization" of the region, citing an August 29 report about the arrest of certain Puntland politicians and the September 30 interview with the ASWJ chairman in which he said an office had been set up in the region's capital city Garowe.
Puntland: reports were inaccurate
The Puntland authorities allege both reports were inaccurate.
The ASWJ are a moderate religious group in the area that has battled the anti-government radical Islamist forces in central Somalia and is believed to be viewed as a political threat by the Puntland government.
According to Pierre, this latest action is especially disconcerting given the vast area in Somalia in which press freedom is already under significant attack.
"We have been monitoring the situation in Somaliland recently, we have been very worried about the one in southern Somalia, and this new incident taking place in Puntland with the Puntland authorities is not a good sign for the future," Pierre said.
The hardline Islamist anti-government forces control most of southern Somalia and have made it one of the world's most dangerous areas to operate as a journalist.