How to describe a militant group? It’s a question in Somalia where for years the government and media have tussled over how to refer to al-Shabab.
In its latest order, issued Sunday, the government directed journalists to replace the word "al-Shabab" with "khawarij," which means "a deviation from Islam."
Deputy Information Minister Abdirahman Yusuf Adala said the directive is a government policy based on the advice of Islamic scholars.
"We are Muslim people," said Adala. "After these men (al-Shabab) claimed to be Muslims and tried to use Islam wrongly, the Somali scholars reached a decision and concluded that the culture of these men is the culture of khawarij, and therefore they are recognized as khawarij."
Order puts journalists at greater risk
Samia Ali, a freelance journalist in Mogadishu, said the directive could put journalists who already work in a dangerous environment at even greater risk.
Ali said the term "khawarij" could endanger the lives of journalists who do not have protection or bodyguards and are not using bulletproof vehicles.
"As the media is neutral, we urge the Somali government not to force the media to use the word and rescind its directive," she said.
The minister said the directive is not aimed at suppressing freedom of expression.
"Journalists are, of course, guided by rules, regulations and journalistic ethics," said Adala. "We stand to encourage freedom of opinion, encourage democracy, and encourage freedom of speech. And journalists are required to report what is right, so the correct definition of those men is that (khawarij). What we stand for is to protect the lives of journalists. Of course, every journalist is an enemy of these men (al-Shabab), and that is why they kill journalists and harass them."
"It will put Somali journalists in great danger"
Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries for media, with rights groups saying militants are responsible for many media killings. A bombing in late October killed one journalist and injured two others, including a contributor to VOA’s Somali service.
Maryan Seylac, the executive director and founder of the Somali Media Women Association, said such attempts to change how media refer to al-Shabab are not fruitful.
"With this issue in place, if the government orders the use of the word ‘khawarij’ and directs the media to use it, it will put Somali journalists in great danger,"said Seylac. "It will cause fear and unrest, and it will increase the number of journalist killings because al-Shabab will directly target independent media, which they will see it to have sided with the government.”
Seylac told VOA that journalists are not a party to any conflicts and should be allowed to operate independently.
"The media knows what is legal and what is not," said Seylac, "so in my opinion, I don't expect the term khawarij can be implemented.”
The directive comes weeks after Somali media protested a separate order on coverage of al-Shabab. Authorities later arrested the secretary general of the Somali Journalists Syndicate, Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, on what they say are security related charges.
Journalists have decried the directives, saying the actions put them in harm’s way.
Ahmed Mohamed in Mogadishu for VOA News))