Thursday, 5 February 2009

Stop Reporting Somalia?

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 5 February 2009.

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As if anyone needed reminding how difficult it is to work as a reporter in Somalia, two fresh events deliver the message clear enough.

The first is the tragically commonplace murder of yet another journalist. This time, it was Said Tahlil Ahmed, director of the influential independent radio station HornAfrik, shot dead in Mogadishu's Bakara Market on 4 February. He was the fourth HornAfrik journalist -- and its second director -- killed since 2007. Tahlil was also the second Somali journalist killed already this year.

Apparently, Tahlil had been previously called by a representative of the hard-line Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab asking him for a meeting at the market. Al Shabaab denied responsibility, though the incident happened amid an increasingly hostile attitude of the militant group towards the media.

Just days before, they had demanded that Somali media stop all favourable reporting of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the newly elected president, and even ordered them to stop referring to him as president. Editors in Mogadishu agreed to carry on trying to report the news regardless of the latest bullying. Tahlil's murder followed soon after.

The second incident did not involve threats, let alone actual violence, but it still brought a kind of intimidation down on struggling Somali journalists -- and from an unusual source. UN Special Representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah called for a one-month moratorium on media reports using information supplied by Somali journalists.

Sharply rejecting accusations that African Union peacekeeping troops had fired on and killed civilians in Mogadishu, he claimed the story, supported by the city's deputy mayor among others, was a fabrication designed to distract attention from the new president's efforts to establish himself. Controversial enough, perhaps, but Ould-Abdallah went further, saying that what had happened was intended to "use the media to repeat Radio Mille Collines, to repeat the genocide in Rwanda".

Well, the news from the ground may not be going his way, but comparing local Somali journalists to those Rwandans who used a radio station to help drive mass murder in 1994?

Unfortunately, it was more than a careless comment. Ould-Abdallah also said, "...the time has come for a one month truce on reporting till there is double, triple checking, because Somalia is exceptional. We have to have exceptional checking of the news."

He emphasised the "tremendous pressure" Somali journalists were under, but he hardly relieved any of that pressure by using extreme terms to call on reporters to shut up for a month.

Don't misunderstand me. Of course, the real tragedy of Somali media in recent days is the murder of HornAfrik's Said Tahlil Ahmed. But it would have been nice to see high-level international support for the country's journalists rather than an over-the-top reprimand.

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