NAIROBI, KENYA - Somali government forces beat and detained a record number of journalists in 2019, according to a new report by a Mogadishu-based journalists trade union.
Abdalle Ahmed Mumin of the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) says the findings, issued Sunday, indicate media professionals in the East African nation now face a greater threat from the state than from regional terror networks such as al-Shabab.
“Eighty-one journalists were physically assaulted during 2019,” said Mumin, adding that at least seven media outlets were shuttered and dozens of journalists were detained, the majority of whom were quickly released without charges.
“Three journalists were wounded, two of them sustained gunshot wounds,” he told VOA.
Although the number of media professionals killed in the field during 2019 — two — is far lower than earlier years, Mumin called the trend of increased detentions and harassment by government actors a serious concern.
“The government is not allowing journalists to report,” Mumin recently told Reuters, explaining that most reporters were detained while covering bombings, insurgent attacks, and sometimes corruption.
For years, al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab was accused of killing Somali journalists, and 2019 was no different. Both Somali reporters killed in 2019 died during al-Shabab’s July 12 car bomb and gun attack on the Asasey Hotel in Kismayo, which claimed 26 lives.
A dangerous beat
Somali officials rarely release casualty figures from insurgent attacks, and SJS says reporting on counterterror efforts and human rights abuses by the state is particularly risky.
Mogadishu-based journalist Mohamed Bulbul said his reporting on al-Shabab’s infiltration of local business and government offices drew threats from state officials.
“The government was angry about my report, which was broadcast on Universal TV in Mogadishu,” he told VOA. “I went into hiding after security forces [decided] to hunt me down. I couldn’t work for several weeks.”
In March, 10 gunmen, including nine in police uniform, opened fire inside Universal Television studios.
Somali officials have denied their officers were involved in the attack, which did not claim any lives.
In December, the federal state of Hirshabelle in central Somalia closed an FM radio station, accusing it of spreading misinformation. Authorities briefly detained the owner and some staff.
Mumin says state intimidation of journalists typically leaves them without recourse.
“State security forces and state officials [act] with total impunity,” he said. “They have [the power] to suppress Somali journalists ... not only in Mogadishu, it is happening in Kismayo, it is happening in Hargeisa, Garowe, and it’s happening in all the states in the country where journalists are not able to report any sensitive reporting, like human rights issues.
“Journalists are not allowed to report security-related issues,” he said.
Somalia’s Ministry of Information did not respond to VOA requests for commentary in time for publication.
In a recent Reuters report, Farhan Mohamed Hussein of Radio Kulmiye said Somali police blindfolded and beat him with gun butts over his reporting, while Nimco Mohamed Bashir of Rajo Television Network said police arrived at her home to threaten her family.
Bashir said the government intimidation has been more stifling for journalists than the persistent threat of assassination by al-Shabab.
“Farmajo’s police beat you with gun butts. ... They openly tell you ‘no covering stories of blasts,’” she said, referring to President Mohamed Abdullahi, a U.S.-Somali citizen known by his nickname Farmajo.
Mumin also said Somalia’s parliament has banned journalists in 2019 and that the upper legislature is drafting a bill to further restrict press freedoms.
Washington-based Freedom House ranked Somalia not free in 2019, while Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Somalia 164 out of 180 countries in its 2019 annual World Press Freedom Index.
The SJS figures, which do not account for the breakaway republic of Somaliland, say 16 journalists were detained in 2017, 12 in 2016, and six in 2016.
Somalia has not seen a stable central government since the fall of President Mohamed Siad Barre nearly 30 years ago.
Reuters contributed to this report.