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Somalia's Frontline Women Journalists Face Multiple Risks

FILE - Journalists from the Somali women-led newsroom Bilan are seen on assignment. (UNDP/2022/Said Fadhaye)
FILE - Journalists from the Somali women-led newsroom Bilan are seen on assignment. (UNDP/2022/Said Fadhaye)

In early January 2017, journalist Shukri Aden Hussein received an anonymous call, conveying an order.

“Leave the government station,” the caller told her.

“It’s not a shame to be a journalist but go and work for the other local stations in the town,” the caller added.

Hussein, 27, said she knew who called her.

“The people who make the phone calls called me — I mean al-Shabab,” she said.

It has been documented that al-Shabab militants send threatening phone calls to journalists to influence their coverage, and to business owners to extort money from them.

Hussein said she did not take the call seriously initially, but things got real after a second phone call about a month later, while she was walking in the town center, in a busy area.

“We see where you are walking; consider yourself lucky if you make it to your home safe,” the caller said.

Hussein said she has never been that scared. She came home “sweating.”

“That night I was taken from our house; I slept [at] a relative family’s house; the next morning, I moved out to a safer area.”

Hussein has not been covering political and security issues at all. She chose to cover mostly social issues — health, education, sports and business — it’s what her family and some of her listeners encouraged her to do.

But what bothered the al-Shabab caller is her association with the regional government-run radio station, Radio Southwest, where she started her journalism career.

Shukri Ismail Ahmed does cover humanitarian affairs including security issues. But she says she treads cautiously.

The al-Shabab militant group has been blockading several towns for a long time as a punishment for supporting the government. The militant group has been attacking any persons, vehicles or donkeys smuggling food and goods into the besieged towns.

One of those towns is Huddur in the Southwest Bakool region where Ahmed was assigned to file a report. She said she covered the story of nomad women who defy al-Shabab and smuggle food into the town to sell to feed their families. If those women are caught by al-Shabab, the punishment will be death.

“The people we are covering are risking their lives, and they are smuggling these goods into the town carrying on their backs,” says Ahmed who works at Radio Bay and Bakool in Baidoa town, as well as Radio Ergo.

“You have to protect them, protect yourself, and at the same cover the story,” Ahmed said of the people taking risks to keep their loved ones alive.

The security threat is not exclusive to women journalists. Somalia has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Dozens of journalists have been killed since 2007 when al-Shabab launched deadly violence against the Somali government and the troops from African countries supporting it.

Two media rights watchdogs say they documented at least eight incidents last year where journalists were killed, or injured, arrested, threatened and intimidated and their equipment confiscated.

According to the Federation of Somali Journalists of Somali Journalists and Somali Media Association, multiple journalists were arrested, some were mistreated, while two died, one of whom succumbed to injuries sustained from a car bomb five years earlier. The other died in an explosion from a person-borne device late last year, the two watchdogs said.

But women journalists also face specific challenges including cultural challenges and disparity at workplaces, activists say.

Farhia Mohamed Kheyre who chairs the Somali Women Journalists Organization says women have to deal with other obstacles that their male colleagues do not, including cultural challenges.

Some newsmakers and religious experts prefer to be interviewed by male journalists, she said.

She said this treatment makes women journalists feel “disappointed.”

“For instance, if a woman wants to interview a religious scholar it can be difficult to get them quickly.”

“It is possible that the religious scholar would say to the station why not send me a man. That makes women feel disappointed. They feel men are being preferred to get the information instead of them.”

Twenty-six-year-old journalist Anfa Aden Abdi says she has been at the receiving end of this treatment “multiple times” when she goes out to gather reaction from the crowds.

“It often happens when you are collecting vox pops and ask people’s view [on an issue],’” she said.

“They say you are a woman, why are you swinging this microphone, why are you outside, why not stay at home?” she said.

Abdi who now heads the gender desk at the Somali Journalist’s Syndicate, a media rights organization, said among the main issues is the lack of equal pay for male and female journalists – sometimes women earn 50% less than their male colleagues, despite making the same effort.

She said salaries and opportunities for training are always less for women than men.

Kheyre said this kind of treatment keeps women from advancing in their careers.

“They see that men always get opportunities, and that is why they got discouraged in hosting big programs or conducting high profile interviews with key newsmakers, and instead resort to social affairs issues.”

Kheyre whose organization has 273 registered female media members says she is focusing on the development of women journalists and improving equal opportunity in the workplace for men and women.

She said women journalists lag in training opportunities and holding key positions at media stations.

Next month, SWJO will be concluding a training that has been ongoing for 20 women in media ethics, editorial roles and administration, and they will be filling the need at stations with skilled female journalists, Kheyre said.

“They will also be self-reliant in case they want to set up their own stations or media production companies.”

Ahmed has become a trainer and helps produce the next generation of journalists.

“I train other journalists because this is the only skill I have now,” she said.

“I want to become an expert in journalism and to reach higher in the field and appear in international media.”

This report originally aired on Women’s Square, a VOA Somali Service radio program.