The government of Somaliland, a key Western ally in the Horn of Africa, is being accused of cracking down on dissent before presidential elections scheduled for next month.
Somali media rights group, the National Union of Somali Journalists, says harsh sentences handed down to two reporters earlier this week in Somaliland are the clearest indication of the government's determination to muzzle free speech.
The two journalists, Yasin Jama Ali and Mohamed Said Abdullahi, were accused of reporting and disseminating scandalous stories about several government officials in Berbera, the hometown of Somaliland President Dahir Riyale.
Both journalists were found guilty of committing what the court called "crimes against the Somaliland nation."
Mohamed Said Abdullahi was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison. Yasin Jama Ali was barred from practicing journalism and their Internet news Web site, berberanews.com, shut down indefinitely.
The secretary-general of the Somali media rights group, Omar Faruk Osman, says the journalists were found guilty even though government officials failed to prove their case in court. Osman says he is appalled by what he describes as "clear attempts by the government to wipe out independent reporting" in the breakaway territory.
"Authorities in Somaliland are sending a message to the journalist community and the media community in Somaliland that they do not tolerate independent reporting. They do not want criticisms. They do not want to be investigated. They do not want the media to have a critical view of their performance, especially [at] this time that presidential elections are approaching," she said.
Somaliland government officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Somaliland declared autonomy after the collapse of Somalia's last functioning government in 1991, but it was never recognized. It developed its own form of democracy and was considered a model of peace and stability for the rest of the country until about 18 months ago, when political disputes arose, following several election postponements and extensions of the president's term of office.
In recent weeks, tensions between President Dahir Riyale's government and two main opposition parties have been escalating amid accusations of poll rigging and voter registration fraud. The opposition has threatened to boycott the September 27 elections unless the government and the National Election Commission rescind their decision to hold elections without a voters' register.
Earlier this month, the United States expressed "profound dismay" with the government's decision to disregard the voters' list and urged President Riyale to reconsider. Analysts say the political impasse in Somaliland has the potential to plunge the territory into violence and create a window for Islamist extremists, fighting to unite all of Somalia under an ultra-conservative Islamic banner, to gain ground.
Somaliland has long cooperated with the United States and the European Union in efforts to fight piracy and terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Much of the territory supports closer ties with the West in the hope that it will bring international recognition of its independence.