/ 13 February 2020

‘The police shoot at journalists all the time’: Press freedom shrinks in Somalia

Graphic Somali Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

Abdulaziz Billow, a TV correspondent for China Global Television Network based in Mogadishu, is accustomed to being shot at by government soldiers and police trying to disperse reporters when he goes to cover al-Shabab blast sites in Somalia. “The police shoot at journalists all the time,” he told the Mail & Guardian. He never expected, however, that a government official would assault him and his cameraman at an evening Independence Day reception at the prime minister’s residence. He has been threatened and harrassed “time and again” by the government, but Billow told the M&G that the manhandling at the celebration was “on another level.”

Billow’s account is echoed by the findings of a just-released Amnesty International report titled, We Live in Perpetual Fear, a 52-page document comprising more than 70 interviews that accuses the sitting Somali government of quashing overall freedom of expression, both in person and on the internet.

So extreme have these threats to free expression become that the only free ambulance service in the capital, Aamin Ambulance, was told it cannot publicly report civilian casualty figures after it arrived at the scene of al-Shabab attacks. Public figures critical of the administration on social media will be reported as “terrorists” and their accounts deactivated.

The number of journalists being killed have gone down since President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (better known as Farmajoo) took office in 2017, but general freedom of expression has greatly declined, said Abdalle Ali Mumin, a journalist who works with The Guardian, The New Humanitarian and other outlets, and who co-founded the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) last year. Mumin says that “the barrage of attacks against the press, predominantly perpetrated by state actors, was one key reason the SJS was formed in May 2019”.

The Amnesty International report paints a picture of a paranoid, aggressive administration, brutally sensitive to any news that it would interpret as diminishing its reputation at home or abroad. The report documents both physical — even fatal — intimidation and bribes by the government and its supporters. “They want to contain the information that is coming out,” Billow said.

At the time of publication neither the office of the president nor the office of the prime minister responded to emails from the M&G requesting responses on the report.

Threats and intimidation 

Billow had attended the June 30 Independence Day event to speak to young people. As of the next day — July 1 2019 — Somalia had been independent for 59 years. For the first 30 years, the country experienced varying levels of peace. A civil war that shattered the state ruined any remnant of that in 1991. Billow’s plan was to talk to people younger than 30 years old at the event and and gain their perspectives on the state of the country, as well as their hopes for the future.

Billow recalled that he had just finished an interview with a woman decked out in Somali flags when Abdirahman Dirie, the director of the prime minister’s residence, demanded that the cameraman tape him reading the address. But Billow already had a reporting plan, “I told him ‘I’m not here to record someone giving a speech, it’s easier to get the speech from the prime minister’s communication department.” In response, Dirie said he was being disrespected and embarrassed. He got so angry that he grabbed at Billow’s ear, shoulder and hand, knocking over the camera. Billow’s colleague managed to grab it before it hit the ground.

Billow said he and the cameraman, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed, were removed from the event after midnight, on Independence Day morning. As he left, he told the soldiers who had evicted them, “Remember my name. Remember my face. Tomorrow when this story comes up don’t say you aren’t involved.”

He decided to wait until nighttime, once the celebrations would have died down, to make a public statement about what happened. At 9.53pm, Billow tweeted about what happened to thousands of followers, including the hashtag, #SomaliaAt59. After his statement, Billow was slammed with calls from random numbers across Europe and Africa telling him that he was “shaming” the government and that he “deserved whatever happened to him”. He was similarly overwhelmed by those who were getting in touch to express their concern for his safety. Billow says very senior officials at the prime minister’s office contacted him and told him to delete his tweets. He refused.

Although he outwardly remained steadfast, Billow said he was scared. “When you’re shaming the government and you’re a journalist, you’re telling a trigger-happy soldier that he can kill you at any time,” he said.

He was told that if we wouldn’t remove the tweets he had to at least add a line to the thread, thanking the government for intervening. Billow eventually did so — the pressure had become too much and it seemed to be the best option.

Billow stayed in Mogadishu, but other Somali journalists have had to flee. In April 2019, Ali Adan Mumin told the M&G that he started receiving threatening calls from an official at the National Intelligence and Security Agency, who said he would be killed if he kept posting information about government corruption on his social-media accounts.

A month after the calls began, Mumin was at work at the independent Goobjoog Media TV and Radio when an official from the Criminal Investigation Department arrived with a letter notifying that he should come to the department. There, he was arrested (he and his lawyer alleged to Amnesty that he was jailed without a warrant). Mumin was told that he was on the wrong side of the law for sharing information that the national exam questions and answers were being sold on the market.

Regional court documents that Amnesty has seen accused Mumin of being “dangerous to the public”. A judge dismissed Mumin’s case, but ruled that he stay in detention for four days until the testing sessions were completed.

Mumin is one of 16 people — including 13 journalists — whose Facebook accounts were disabled or permanently deleted. The individuals interviewed by Amnesty think the government was behind this, reporting them to Facebook for nefarious activity. Mumin said, “I had about 60 000 followers and I lost my account like that. I think someone from the government reported me to Facebook. I can no longer have access to my account: I have to start it from scratch. It is not fair.”  

Abdiaziz Xildhibaan, the former spokesperson for the ministry of internal security, now based in London, who also had his account disabled, agreed. “The government tells its supporters to report people as terrorists,” he said. Xildhibaan said he contacted Facebook, including going to the London office with paperwork showing his dual British-Somali citizenship,  but was given at best, vague responses.  

His account was reactivated in early October after Amnesty approached Facebook asking why his account had been taken down, although Facebook still has not provided a clear answer as to what happened.  

In response to the allegations that it was meddling in social media, the directorate of communications at the presidency told Amnesty that: “the strengthening of technology in the nation has seen growth in social and digital media platforms. Whereas this has given rise and prominence to creative citizens at home and abroad, the existence of unregulated content or lack of mechanisms to allow categorisations of journalists and entertainers has unearthed all manner of users who continue to publish defamatory content without any sense of accountability.”

The government went on to tell Amnesty it has “focused on providing alternative truth on social media [Twitter and Facebook] as a tool for clarification to inform the public rightfully”.

Another way in which the government is accused of quelling information is by bribing and threatening media outlets to fire their employees who report on the government in a way that it deems diminishes its reputation, or to encourage them to cover it in a way it considers positive. A number of journalists told Amnesty their editors would kill stories before they were aired or published, and that their supervisors openly stated they were influenced by the government and had to self-censor.

Mohamed Ibrahim Bulbul said he was dismissed from two positions for reporting on corruption in the security sector. He alleges that one of his bosses at a former radio station told him that the station was in contact with the government and could not cover certain topics. “I don’t want to be a one-sided journalist,” said Bulbul, on why he persisted.

Bulbul was a runner-up in the British Embassy’s  inaugural SomaliJournalism Award in 2019. The competition was created “to highlight the importance of defending media freedom and demonstrate the key role that the media play in creating an inclusive and open society in Somalia. It will also seek to identify and project young Somali voices and positive stories about Somalia.”

Bulbul received acclaim for his TV story on Haji Ali, a 68-year-old man who has dedicated his life to sweeping a 100m section of road in Mogadishu. In the interview he tells BulBul, “I will work for my country until I die.”

This is the kind of reporting that the government seems to want more of. The minister of information attended the the awards ceremony, saying, “My ministry’s policy is to encourage the media houses to highlight positive stories.”