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Media Rights Group Cautions that Independent Media in Somalia May Disappear


A Somali media rights group is voicing grave concern that the continuing lack of security, growing censorship, and dwindling domestic and international support for journalists in Somalia could wipe out independent media in the country.

The National Union of Somali Journalists says Somalia's once-thriving independent media will cease to exist, if the current crackdown on media organizations continues unchecked.

The general secretary of the media rights group, Omar Faruk Osman, tells VOA that members of the country's powerful radical Islamist groups - al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam - have threatened the media into submission, raising serious concerns about whether the Somali people will ever have access to uncensored news again.

"There is oppression of the media in every place of the country," said Omar Faruk Osman. "But the situation is extremely out of hand in Mogadishu. It is content. It is programs. It is interviews being censored by Hizbul Islam and al-Shabab. They are not allowing the media to operate freely and independently. Our fear now is that people in Mogadishu will miss independent and critical information coming from media [that is] not politically allied with any of the warring sides in the country."

Since 2007, al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants have steadily consolidated power in southern Somalia, partly by seizing media stations in areas under their control. The group controls radio stations in strategic towns such as Baidoa in the Bay region and the port town of Kismayo in the south.

In early 2009, another fundamentalist insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, joined al-Shabab in its efforts to topple the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. Despite backing by the United Nations and the presence of the 5,300-member African Union peacekeeping troops, the fragile government has been unable to expand its reach beyond a few blocks of the capital.

Osman says extremists, determined to implement their strict version of Islamic law in every part of Somalia, have fiercely targeted the media in Mogadishu to help them achieve their goal. He says private media organizations are also suffering financially because many businesses are too afraid to buy time for advertisements.

"Media is a powerful tool and has influence in the communities," he said. "Because of that, they attack the media. At the end of the day, there is no rule of law in the country. There is a rule of the gun and if one does not abide by the rules imposed illegally, then someone having a gun will kill you. And that is what is happening."

On Wednesday, Hizbul Islam forced 14 private radio stations in Mogadishu to stop broadcasting music, which the group called "un-Islamic." Radio stations say they complied with the order following threats. Last week, al-Shabab also forced the private radio stations to drop VOA and BBC programs, calling them western propaganda that violated Islam.

Osman is equally critical of the international community. He says donor nations are undermining private media in Somalia by withholding funding. He says the money that should be going to Somali journalists is now going to fund radio stations recently established to counter extremist propaganda.

With donor backing, the Transitional Federal Government launched Radio Mogadishu last year. And the U.N. support office for the African Union peacekeeping mission established Radio Bar-Kulan, which broadcasts from Nairobi but is heard in Mogadishu on an FM station. Osman says in the capital, neither station is viewed as an outlet that reflects the voice of the people.

Somalia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for working journalists. The National Union of Somali Journalists says at least 19 media professionals have been killed there since 2007.

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