How to survive as a journalist in Somalia


Somalia, a country without an effective central government for over two decades, has a surprisingly vivid media landscape. There are dozens of radios and hundreds of online portals despite journalists being threatened, attacked and killed in large numbers. Some of those remaining in Somalia fall back on self-imposed security measures while others are forced into exile.

It takes immense courage and drive to be a journalist in Somalia, a country in the Horn of Africa. Reporters Without Borders in 2011 listed its capital city Mogadishu among the ten most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Within the past four months, four journalists have been murdered here and according to Amnesty International, 25 journalists were killed since 2007.

Protests against climate of violence against journalists in Somalia. Photo: NUSOJ

Most recently, the 24-year-old radio journalist Ali Ahmed Abdi was shot dead near his home in Galkayo town in the self-proclaimed autonomous region of Puntland in the evening of 4 March. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, radical Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the murder the following evening, accusing Abdi of being a “spy” for the Puntland government.

Threats against journalists have been a daily affair in Somalia for years. The picture is slightly different now though, says Mohammed Ibrahim, secretary-general of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) as journalists are often targeted in government-controlled areas, including in the capital city Mogadishu.

“Al-Shabaab, which is affliated with [terrorist group] al-Qaeda, keeps the media and journalists under constant threat. The reason is they want to divert the media’s attention,” Ibrahim said in an interview from Mogadishu. He added that reporting on the military operation of the Transitional Federal Government, which is forcing Al-Shaabab out of Mogadishu and other key towns with the help of the African Union, Ethiopian and Kenyan troops, “is likely to threaten the security of the journalists.”

Mrs. Habibo Ahmed Jimale, a veteran journalist and NUSOJ Supreme council Vice chairman urges unity among journalists for justice during the mourning ceremony for journalist Abdisalan Sheik Hassan, who was gunned down on 18 December 2011. Photo: NUSOJ

“No story is worth more than a life”

Many Somali journalists thus follow a set of self-imposed rules and common sense to avoid becoming targets. For instance, Abdalle Moumin, reporter and senior news editor for Mogadishu-based Radio Risalaa, opts to work only between 8 am and 4 pm, making sure that it is light out and there are people on the streets.

“When I am going home I do not tell any person, except my wife. Also I do not answer my phone until I reach my home or else I switch it off,” Moumin said an interview, and added that he recently bought an internet connection to be able to work from home to reduce the security risks.

As Moumin lacks the financial resources to hire guards or take a taxi, he refrains from going to the downtown area of the capital and other public places. Another principle he follows is that he does not get in touch with an unknown person before checking their background first.

Journalists who have received phone threats avoid taking any risks. “They immediately change their phone numbers, change locations, stay at the new location for some time like a month or so,” Ibrahim said. He added that whenever the NUSOJ receives information on safety risks, including violent attacks, they warn journalists through text messages to avoid those areas.

To raise journalists’ awareness of security risks, the NUSOJ is also working on a short safety announcement in collaboration with radio and television channels, he said. The union is planning to run the public service announcement before news slots with the motto “No story is worth more than a life”.

Members of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) attend the funeral of their colleague Hasan Osman Abdi who was killed in Mogadishu on 28 February 2012. Photo: NUSOJ

Forced into exile

Although he never seriously considered going into exile, Ibrahim did spend a brief period of two months in Kenya after reporting on child soldiers for The New York Times in 2010. However, there are over 150 journalists who have emigrated over the past five years, mainly to neighbouring Kenya and Uganda, according to Ahmedsadik Yusuf, an exiled journalist living in Uganda.

“I became an exiled journalist in 2008 for security and health reasons. After being injured in an attack by militias, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project assisted me to flee to Uganda where I had a successful operation to remove remaining bullet fragments,” he said. Mohamed added that he has no desire to return to Somalia, where he believes media professionals and civil society actors lived in constant fear.

Journalists are concerned that the attacks and murders committed against their colleagues largely go uninvestigated. According to news reports, Abdisalam Sheik Hassan, a journalist for the Horn Cable TV station and Hamar Radio, was shot in the head last December in Mogadishu by a man wearing a government military uniform. Although Somali police and the national security agency claimed that they investigated his murder, a local journalist relayed a rumour according to which the culprit was released after the police received bribes.

Investigations are still ongoing in Hassan’s case as well as in the case of the most recent murder of Ali Ahmed Abdi, said Abdirahman Omar Osman, the Government Spokesman and Senior Advisor to the President, in a phone interview. The authorities are however facing the problem that people are hesitant to reveal information as they fear possible repercussions by offenders, he added.

Journalists as well as human rights groups have been urging the Somali authorities to bring attackers to court.

“Despite Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government’s promises to investigate these killings, no one has ever been brought to justice for such acts. It’s time that the international community takes concrete measures to tackle impunity for the killings of journalists in the country,” Amnesty International said in a January statement.

In the absence of efficient protection and due to looming threats, journalists are often forced to go into exile, journalist Abdalle Moumin concluded.

“To avoid getting into a life-threatening situation,” he said, “one has no other choice than to escape from the country because here you cannot get good police who can protect you and there are no proper security agents you can inform at the time of risk.”

Since 1991, the ousting of Mohamed Siad Barre, there has been no central government control over the whole of Somalia, a country ranked 161th out of 178 countries in the latest worldwide press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.