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Somalia Journalist Fight for Press Freedom Despite Murders

With Somalia plagued by conflict and almost daily violence, all sides are increasingly threatening, attacking, and even killing journalists who file critical reports. In the past year alone, eight journalists were murdered and dozens fled to Kenya and other neighboring countries. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders says that Somalia is the second-most dangerous place in the world for journalists after Iraq. Cathy Majtenyi files this report for VOA from Kenya.

Fighting and hostility make Somali streets a dangerous place. As video from HornAfrik TV shows, journalism here can be deadly.

Ali Sharmarke was the director HornAfrik Media Inc. based in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. A roadside bomb destroyed his car on August 11, killing him instantly.

In an interview shortly before his death, Sharmarke explained why he faced the danger. He said, "We are considering the needs of the society [to have impartial information] and we decided to take the risk. The founders [of our organization] and the people who are working here, we all decided to work under that risk."

Sharmarke was one of eight journalists killed in Somalia in 2007.

Gathering in a Nairobi hotel on Human Rights Day last month, exiled Somali journalists, activists and others discussed the deteriorating press situation in their war-torn country.

"I would like to quote here one journalist who fled from Mogadishu who told me, 'I wrote a story about two insurgents that were killed. I was called on my mobile and the caller said, 'Why did you write that?' It is the truth, I said, I had to write it. He said, 'You are going to be on the list of the people which we are going to kill'," said Dave Copeman, who is the East Africa campaigner for the global human rights group Amnesty International.

Somalia has been unstable ever since Siad Barre was ousted from power in 1991.

Fighting has intensified as Ethiopian troops supporting Somalia's transitional federal government battle with remnants of the force they ousted in 2006, the Islamic Courts Union.

The United Nations estimates more than a million Somali refugees are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

As they report on the conflict, journalists are increasingly coming under fire from the government, insurgents, and others involved in the fighting.

Omar Faruk Osman is secretary general of the National Union of Somali Journalists. He says simply reporting on the conflict is dangerous. "If you want to present the problems the public is facing, if you want to interview different opposition groups, then all of these issues are very sensitive issues and if you try to report, then the journalists are ready to face risks."

Somali ambassador to Kenya Mohamed Ali Nur denies that his government has threatened, arrested and beaten journalists who file critical reports. "The government is doing its best to safeguard the journalists. We believe in freedom, we believe in free journalism," he said.

He says his government passed legislation aimed at protecting journalists but also requiring what he called responsible reporting.

The international community has strongly criticized the Somali government and others for the repression meted out to journalists.

In mid-December, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Eric Laroche said his complaints in letters and personal visits to Somali government officials were met with stony silence. "So, I think it is a subject which is covered (up) deliberately. People do not want to talk about that, yet it is a major issue."

Despite the odds, journalists continue to advocate for press freedom and cover a story that puts them in the line of fire.