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Media Groups: Somali Government Harassing Journalists


International media rights groups say Somalia's U.N.-backed government is threatening and harassing journalists covering the violent fighting in the capital, Mogadishu.

According media watchdogs, Somali journalist Mohammed Ibrahim received death threats and was hunted down by government intelligence officials for assisting the New York Times newspaper on a story that caused a furor in the United States.

In an article that ran last month, the newspaper alleged that the Transitional Federal Government had contravened international laws by employing children as young as nine years-old as soldiers. Government officials denied the allegation.

During a press conference on June 24, the deputy commander of the Somali military charged that those who had helped the New York Times gather information had ties to the al-Qaida-linked militant group, al-Shabab. Last week, Ibrahim fled Mogadishu for neighboring Kenya.

The New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief, Jeffrey Gettlemen, told the Vienna-based International Press Institute that Somali government officials had threatened others involved in reporting the story.

Thursday, police detained Agence France-Presse journalist Mustafa Haji Abdinur and a freelance cameraman in Mogadishu for taking photographs of a colleague, who had been wounded during a battle between al-Shabab and government forces. The journalists were not charged, but they were forced to destroy the photographs.

International Press Institute's Press Freedom Adviser for Africa and the Middle East, Naomi Hunt, says the Somali government's crackdown and intimidation of the media is frightening and unacceptable.

"We understand that the Somali government is currently fighting Islamist insurgents and is in a particularly difficult position," said Hunt. "But a part of the reason they are backed internationally is because people count on them to share international democratic values. So, it is quite discouraging to see that, in this case, they are the ones going after the journalists, especially since the journalists, as far as we can tell, fulfilled all of the ethical and professional requirements," she added.

Hundreds of journalists have fled Somalia and dozens have been killed since 2007, when Islamist opponents of the government launched a bloody insurgency. Last year, Somalia was named as the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist.

The Transitional Federal Government is the 15th attempt by the international community to form a functioning central government in Somalia since 1991.

Despite an effort in 2009 to include moderate Islamists in government, allegations of corruption, internal divisions, and its close ties to neighboring Ethiopia have kept the government unpopular and mired in controversy. It is currently dependent on a 5,300-member African Union peacekeeping force from being toppled by al-Shabab militants.

Al-Shabab, which aims to unite the country under a strict, Taliban-like rule, also suffers from internal divisions, and its brutal tactics against civilians have alienated many Somalis who initially gave the group support. Nevertheless, some Somalis give al-Shabab credit for restoring law and order and for setting up functioning administrations in towns in southern Somalia under its control.

In recent weeks, leading political analysts in the United States have urged the Obama administration to drop its support of the Transitional Federal Government, arguing that its inability to provide even basic services to Somalis are giving extremists a popular boost.

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