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Journalist Groups Condemn UN Somalia Envoy's Media 'War' Comment

A Somali journalists' union and human rights groups are calling on the top U.N. envoy to Somalia to apologize for statements he made questioning the accuracy of news reports coming from Somalia. The envoy is being accused of motivating those responsible for attacks on local journalists.

The National Union of Somali Journalists has condemned statements by U.N. special envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, suggesting that Islamist extremists are using the local media to wage a disinformation war aimed at undermining peace efforts.

The journalist's union general secretary, Omar Faruk Osman, called for the envoy to retract his comment.

"He has to apologize and withdraw that statement and make a public commitment to defend the rights and the professional independence of the journalists," he said.

In the original interview with VOA, Ould-Abdallah charged that a reported massacre of civilians by African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu had been timed to draw attention away from the election of Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

The president had been elected less than 24-hours earlier, and was making his debut at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa when the news broke.

The massacre was widely reported by all major international news agencies, including VOA, but the facts have since been disputed, and human rights groups have called for an international investigation.

The government of Uganda, whose troops were accused of the massacre, conducted its own probe, which concluded that all the deaths had been caused by a suicide bomber, and that the peacekeepers had not fired any shots.

Speaking to VOA Thursday, the U.N. envoy said he stood by his earlier charge that extremist forces such as the Islamic militant al-Shabab were trying to use the media to sow confusion and hatred, in much the same way as had been done by Rwandan extremists in inciting genocide a generation ago.

But Somali journalists' union chief Osman says the envoy's statements motivate those carrying out attacks on local reporters. He called for the United Nations to be more supportive of Somalia's embattled media.

"They need to understand that the media is the fourth estate and it has an undeniable role in the development of the country," said Osman. "If there is any interest to help the Somalis, they need to work with the media in a more open and more cooperative manner."

In his original VOA interview, Ould-Abdallah said Somali journalists are working in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Saying extreme measures are needed to protect journalists in this extreme environment, he called for a 30-day moratorium on all reporting from Somalia that could not be independently verified by outside sources.

Journalists' groups expressed outrage at the moratorium call. Ambroise Pierre, the head of the Africa desk of the group Reporters Without Borders described it as an insult.

"Saying that the reports from Somali journalists are not reliable is not only insulting, it is just a big mistake because from what we know, many of the information they publish are correct and verified and checked," said Pierre. "The thing he could at least do now is to just publicly recognize that he went too far and that the Somali journalists should be not only respected, but protected."

Somalia is widely considered to be one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Most news agencies forbid their international staff to travel there.

A local human rights group says the killing this month of veteran Horn Afrik reporter Tahlil Ahmed brings to nine the number of journalists killed in Somalia since the beginning of 2007. The national journalists' union estimates 21 Somali reporters went into exile last year, and dozens more fled their homes in fear of reprisals.