On May 18, Somaliland will celebrate 21 years of self-declared independence from Somalia. With a thriving democracy, exemplified by the 2010 presidential election which saw Daahir Rayaale peacefully transfer power to Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo, many African observers believe Somaliland should be destined for official statehood.
But all is not as rosy as it seems, and Somaliland’s democratic credentials are by no means untarnished. In particular, press freedoms, especially in the disputed eastern regions formerly known as Sool, Sanag and Cayn, and in the desolate western coastal areas used by the Ogaden National Liberation Front to access the sea, are said to be falling back into old patterns of repression and censorship.
Even Somaliland Focus UK, a group of former electoral observers who were so impressed with Somaliland’s potential they formed a group to champion its quest for international recognition, is concerned. Earlier this year, the group sent a letter to the newly-appointed Minister of Information, Abdirahman Yusuf Duale (“Bobe”), urging reforms of Somaliland’s media laws, and a general shift in the government’s attitude towards journalists.
“Actions against media were a regrettable hallmark of past Somaliland administrations,” Cecilia Milesi, Chair of the Somaliland Focus UK, writes in the letter, “and we are extremely disappointed to see this government continuing to employ such practices”.
“I think it’s a lack of confidence on the part of the government,” Michael Walls from Somaliland Focus UK told Think Africa Press. “They don’t really know how to deal with security threats, they don’t know how to discern between simple criticism and inciting people to violence – and those are big problems.”
In 2011, the Somaliland Journalist Association (SOLJA) outlined fourteen incidents of government persecution against media outlets, six of which were violent. In a final note to the list, SOLJA’s secretary-general Mohamed Rashid Farah proclaimed: “Urgent measures must be taken to uphold the fundamental rights and freedom of expression for Somaliland reporters.”
In early April, television reporters Ahmed Ali Farah and Abdisaman Keise were arrested on the grounds of defamation while covering a conflict between the Somaliland government and the newly-formed Khaatumo state.
“I was visiting my friend Ahmed Ali Farah [a journalist arrested 3 days earlier] in prison and the local governor detained me for five days” Abdisaman Keise explained through an interpreter. “They didn’t tell me why I was being held, and they beat me five times and hit me with the butt of a gun when they first arrested me. I cannot work freely in Somaliland,” he added. “I want to leave the country.”
The New York-based Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) has also been vocal in condemning Somaliland’s harassment of journalists.
"Authorities are holding Ahmed Ali Farah and Abdisaman Isse (sic) without explanation, in violation of the law, and in apparent reprisal for political coverage deemed unfavourable," CPJ’s East Africa Correspondent Tom Rhodes said in a statement on their website.
SOLJA has over 230 members across Somaliland, providing assistance when problems with local government arise. But with little educational infrastructure in Somaliland and virtually no funding to hold training programmes, the organisation’s ability to instil a lasting change on Somaliland’s media is limited.
Journalists are commonly charged with defamation, usually in informal on-the-spot rulings by local politicians. And government and journalists both claim the media often distort facts, basing articles on unreliable sources and serving as a platform to advertise private companies.
The power of Somaliland’s media to influence clan relations and mobilise the public, as evidenced by coverage of Khaatumo state, is feared by the government.
“We may be sensitive to certain issues” Adbirahman Yusuf Duale explained to Think Africa Press. “Any issue related to the security and stability of the country that may create any rifts in the public – we may be very sensitive to that.”
Many journalists, however, feel this sensitivity extending into general tension on the streets of Hargeisa. “When I go to the market, people don’t like me taking photos. The moment you take photos the police are thinking of security,” claimed freelance journalist Rooble Mohamed.
A power struggle between the government and the media is now playing out, with both vying for control and influence over Somaliland’s population.
Veteran Somaliland journalist Husein Ali Noor explained: “We’ve got two forces competing for power. On the one hand, the power of the government to silence the media can challenge journalists’ freedom. But on the other hand, the government is frightened of the media’s ability to challenge their own power. So the two are constantly bickering.”
The rise of internet-based journalism has further complicated Somaliland’s media environment. Like much of the media in Somaliland, most newly-launched websites lack original and objective reporting, and position themselves in a polarised political space, often operating beyond the reach of the Somaliland government in the diaspora.
“Either you are supporting the government 200%, or you are against them 300%,” Rooble explained. Worse still, these websites often seem to employ questionable journalistic practices that rely on weak, undisclosed sources, and often appear to function as promotional tools for companies.
“There are no negative articles about Dahabshiil [a large money-transfer corporation] or Telesom [a telecommunications company] because when they pay to place advertisements in the media” claimed Rooble, there “is a clause for no negative media attention”.
Most journalists say that a lack of educational opportunities is the underlying problem with Somaliland’s media. As well as being very poorly paid, no formal journalistic training has been offered in Somaliland since 2009, when the University of Hargeisa terminated its journalism programme.
Although Dutch-based Delmar Media, a Somali diaspora website, offers short training workshops for journalists in the summer, and USAID has held sporadic 2-3 day seminars over the past few years, no long-term solutions are in place at the moment.
Rooble elucidated the hopes of many of his Somaliland colleagues as he said: “I would like to see a training programme in Somaliland that addresses the key skills necessary to be a journalist: behaviour and ethics, writing and structure and a course on investigative journalism to help us uncover corruption.”
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