As Somalia gears up for the second phase of its war with al-Shabab militants, there is a tussle between the independent media and the government over how much access journalists should have to the front lines, liberated areas and combat operations.
In a statement on March 25, Somalia’s Ministry of Information said that 3,000 al-Shabab militants were killed and 3,700 more injured in the first phase of military operations between August 2022 and January 2023. The government also said 70 towns and villages had been liberated from al-Shabab.
Meanwhile, the militant group claimed that the first phase of military operations by the Somali government and local fighters had failed. There have never been independent sources confirming the claims of either side.
Mohamed Abdiwahab, director of Mogadishu-based Radio Risaala, said during the first phase of the war, journalists did not get access to the front lines and mostly depended on what government officials and al-Shabab militants claimed.
"We've got to get out there" with the troops and report from the front lines and liberated areas, so that Somali citizens will get the impartial news from independent journalists rather than waiting on counterclaims and press conferences of the opposing sides,” Abdiwahab said.
Somali journalists often face a variety of obstacles, from forced self-censorship and constant threats, to limits on reporting military operations.
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According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Somalia sits atop its 2022 Global Impunity Index for the eighth straight year. The index “spotlights countries where members of the press are murdered in retaliation for their reporting and the perpetrators go free."
CPJ recorded 19 journalists who have been killed in retaliation for their work since 2012, with no convictions of their killers.
Last October, Somali security forces arrested journalist Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, secretary general of the Somali Journalists Syndicate, after the government announced a crackdown on media outlets that publish what it deems propaganda for the Islamist militant group al-Shabab.
In February, after spending about five months in jail, a court in Mogadishu sentenced Mumin to two months in prison. But in a surprise move, he was released shortly after the ruling.
"We want freedom reporting; the government wants to control information," a Mogadishu-based journalist said on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. “Denial of access to information and free reporting constitutes the most sweeping form of censorship we could face."
Under tightly controlled conditions, the Somali military allows limited members of government media outlets to be embedded with government troops on the front lines. But most were confined to the bases and liberated areas, one government military radio reporter told VOA on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Many years ago, al-Shabab banned journalists from reporting news that undermined its misinterpretations of Islam and forbade independent media in areas under its control.
"Not only about the active battle and stories from the front lines, but there are so many stories that journalists can report about from the liberated areas, including humanitarian, and giving people who have been suppressed by terrorists to speak out about their experiences under al-Shabab rule,” Abdiwahab said.
Multiple Somalia-based media organizations and journalist advocates told VOA that journalists in government-controlled areas rely on the country’s constitutional right to freedom of opinion and expression, but often risk reprisal.
“We never expected mercy and freedom from al-Shabab, and journalists in the government-controlled areas risk arrests for criticizing government officials and reporting about security matters,” Abdiwahab said.
Last month, both houses of Somalia’s parliament approved, and the president signed, a new anti-terrorism law and intelligence agency bill, which rights groups and journalist advocates said contained provisions that could be used to violate the rights to freedom of speech and the press.
Somali journalist-turned-lawmaker Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu, a five-time survivor of al-Shabab terror attacks, said the government should get access to front lines.
“Journalists should enjoy unfettered access to combat zones, and we encourage the government to work on that. People should get reliable stories from reliable independent sources,” said Moalimuu. “Therefore, the government bills and behaviors would not conflict with our constitution.”
Somali government officials have denied preventing independent journalists access to the front lines as part of a policy to silence them and manipulate information.
Deputy Minister of Information Abdirahman Yusuf Al-Adala said there is no government policy to deny journalists access to the front lines, but their security and safety remain a challenge.
"We have a responsibility to protect journalists, and there are reasons why we sometimes do not allow them to the front lines — because al-Shabab uses an improvised explosive device, land mines and ambushes, which could endanger journalists," said Al-Adala.
"Their safety is our priority. For us, our position remains that Somali journalists get access to independent information, and whenever safe and possible, we will let them report from the front lines.”
While journalists clamor for access to the second phase of the government military operations, Somalia’s Information Ministry said government-owned media will actively share information with Somali citizens.
“As a part of the government’s three-pronged approach — military, financial and ideological — the government media is taking its role in reporting the second phase of the military operation, and we will always share with Somali people where things are at, the living condition of the people in the liberated areas, and how government stabilization programs are running,” Information Minister Daud Aweis Jama told VOA Somali.
This report originated in VOA's Somali Service.