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Media Groups Condemn Suspension of Broadcaster in Somaliland

With investors and the international community looking to increase ties with Somaliland, the recent suspension of a London-based broadcaster has media freedom groups questioning the breakaway government's commitment to democracy.

Somaliland has impressed international observers as a small outpost of democracy in an otherwise troubled region. While not recognized by any nation, the small region in northwestern Somalia has nevertheless been lauded for holding its third successful multi-party election in less than a decade. Presidential elections held in June were deemed by observers to meet international standards and produced a peaceful transfer of power from President Dahir Rayale Kahin to challenger Ahmed Silaanyo.

Bias accusation

Somaliland's reputation is in jeopardy, however, after the suspension Thursday of United Kingdom-based satellite broadcaster Universal TV. Information Minister Abdullahi Osman accused the station of bias and ordered it to stop operations indefinitely, without clarifying further.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the ban came shortly after the station broadcast interviews and discussions featuring the Sool, Sanag and Cayn Militia, a separatist group from Somaliland's eastern border.

Somaliland's borders have been inherited from the former British Colony of the same name. The Sool, Sanag and Cayn Militia advocates separation with the region in favor of Puntland, the semiautonomous state which neighbors Somaliland.

Call to lift suspension

Africa Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tom Rhodes, condemned the suspension.

"It certainly doesn't bode well for Somaliland's achievements in promoting democracy," said Rhodes. "This abrupt suspension clearly is an example that Somaliland has a long way to go. Somaliland actually bans any private broadcasters operating within its region. The only reason that Universal TV is viewed by the public in Somaliland is because it is broadcast outside from the United Kingdom via satellite."

The suspension of Universal TV comes as donors, as well as the international community, look to Somaliland to provide stability in the Horn of Africa.

On Monday, officials from the region met with a delegation of international donors interested in providing support for development, as well as anti-terrorism efforts.

High hopes for region

The United States also has expressed a strong interest in the region. In late September, United States Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson told journalists the U.S. would start to "aggressively" engage the Somaliland government in light of its stability compared with rest of the region.

Many still feel the breakaway state can maintain its status as an emerging democracy. The National Union of Somali Journalists called the episode "a major test" to the government's commitment to media freedom.

Tom Rhodes said the region could reaffirm its commitment to democracy by lifting the ban. "The first thing that Somaliland needs to do is, of course, lift this censorship with Universal TV and allow the reporters to continue reporting in Somaliland," Rhodes said. "The second thing, if not the first thing, should be to lift the suspension on private broadcasters working within the country. Somaliland already has a vibrant print press, with vibrant, independent broadcasters also working in the country. It is really the two steps forward that Somaliland needs to achieve its goals."

Rhodes said the government was negotiating with Universal TV and that he expected the station back on the air in the near future.

Universal TV is a Somali television network established in 2005 to broadcast news to the Somali diaspora. The network maintains correspondents throughout Somalia and the region. Some observers say Universal TV maintains a pro-Puntland stance, which has provoked the ire of the Somaliland government.