A Somali media-rights group says fighting between Islamist militants and the country's U.N.-backed government is about to explode in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the Somali people.
The secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists, Omar Faruk Osman, says three of Mogadishu's 14 radio stations are now under the control of Islamist militants. Osman says there is no question the militants are determined to wipe out independent reporting in the country.
"This is a wider campaign to take over all private radio stations, and our main concern is that this will be used as a tool for hate media that we know there will be a negative effect on society," Osman said.
Radio stations in Mogadishu
On Saturday, armed fighters loyal to extremist al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam groups forcibly took over two private radio stations in the capital.
Al-Shabab fighters raided the offices of HornAfrick in Mogadishu's al-Shabab-controlled Bakara Market. Separately, Hizbul Islam fighters entered the headquarters of Global Broadcasting Corporation in the Heliwa district of the capital and took over its radio and television studios. A month ago, al-Shabab took over the management of another privately-owned station, Radio Holy Quran, after delivering a threatening letter.
Since 2007, al-Shabab has been leading an insurgency to topple the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, aiming to create an ultra-conservative Islamic state throughout southern and central Somalia and beyond.
The al-Qaida-linked group controls much of the south and large areas of the capital. But it has been unable to seize the whole of Mogadishu and key installations such as the airport and seaport, which are protected by more than 7,000 African Union peacekeeping troops.
During the recent Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the group vowed to wage what it described as a "massive" and "final" war against the government and peacekeepers. It sent suicide bombers to attack the airport and a hotel popular with government officials. It bombarded the presidential palace with mortars, managing, at one point, to briefly seize the main road that connects the palace to the airport.
But after weeks of fighting that left hundreds of people dead and wounded, neither side has been able to declare victory over the other.
With the ground war at a stalemate, Osman says he believes al-Shabab now wants to control the airwaves and spread false information that could help the militants gain the upper hand.
"The media will be used to wage war, to inflame hostilities, to instill fear in the hearts of the people," Osman added. "The other concern we also have is [the] increasing attempts to infiltrate media houses. They are knocking on doors of media houses, offering 'I will work for you free of charge.' Or trying to recruit some of the security guards of the media houses. So that is our concern now."
Osman says there is also a possibility that the Somali Transitional Federal Government will be tempted to counter al-Shabab's propaganda war by trying to manipulate and censor the media just as harshly.
In June, eight journalists were wounded in Mogadishu by an explosion that ripped through a press conference being held by al-Shabab. Somali and international media watchdogs accused government troops of launching the attack to silence the journalists.