More than 50 journalists have been killed in Somalia since the civil war started in 1990. It is the most dangerous place for journalists to operate in Africa. The jihadist terrorist group Al Shabab attacks military and civilian targets and routinely uses intimidation of the press as a tool to control the narrative.
Six years ago, the leaders of Al Shabab invited journalists – myself included – to a press conference in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city. It was a trap to assassinate the journalists who attended, but we didn’t find out until it was too late. I witnessed Al Shabab shoot my colleague, Said Tahlil, right in front of me. I could not even rush him to the nearest health center to save his life because all roads were closed due to the fight between Al Shabab and the government militia.
Although Al Shabab has been pushed back into rural Somali towns and no longer controls major cities, it continues to carry out attacks and bombings in the region. Allied to Al Qaeda, Al Shabab is fighting for the implementation of a fundamentalist Somali Islamic state.
Despite the peril we face as journalists, independent Somali media aren’t aligned with the government or Al Shabab – we are non-partisan and try to take a neutral stance on the stories we report.
Last month, the Somali government put further constraints on our editorial freedom when it banned journalists in the country from using the word “Al Shabab” – an Arabic word meaning “the youth” – in their coverage when referring to the Islamist insurgent group. Instead, the memo asked that media now address them as “the group that massacres the Somali people.”
Al Shabab has threatened to take strong action against any journalist or media group that follows the government order. Since top daily news stories often involve Al Shabab as a key player, this puts our journalists in a perpetual state of dilemma and fear.
Al Shabab is believed to be around 8,000 strong and has drawn radical jihadists from across the globe. This month, for example, a 25-year-old British man is believed to have been killed while storming a military base in northern Kenya with Al Shabab fighters.
As Kenya has been sending troops to battle Al Shabab in Somali regions, Al Shabab has retaliated by carrying out several attacks in Kenya. In April, it murdered 147 people in an attack at Garissa University College, intending to wipe out the Christian students. In 2013, it attacked Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, killing at least 67 people.
In principal, the government’s request that media stop using the name “Al Shabab” may seem like an honorable refusal to pander to terrorism, but there are ramifications for some of the most vulnerable professionals in the region: Al Shabab could escalate its war on journalists.
The Somali Independent Media Houses Association (SIMHA), which I founded in 2013, is a media advocacy group that operates to help member media houses drive innovation across their coverage areas. SIMHA has released a press statement calling for the Somali government to withdraw its order in an effort to avoid exposing our journalists – especially independent ones – to very real danger.
As of now, it doesn’t seem the Somali government has any plans to rescind its mandate, and state media have already removed the moniker “Al Shabab” from their coverage.
If there is no room for negotiation on the side of the government, we may resort to challenging the order in local court.