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While Somalia was occupied by the Ethiopian military, the country’s new leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was in exile in Eritrea, where the government gave him aid and an international forum. Now he is back and is facing enormous challenges. Elected president at the end of January 2009 and supported by the United Nations, he has to rebuild the country’s economy, stabilize it politically and guarantee the population’s security. Together with his government, he also has to put a stop to the slaughter of the country’s journalists.
In what could be a harbinger of yet another year of terror for the media, a journalist was killed on the first day of 2009. It was Radio Shabelle reporter Hassan Mayow Hassan, who was shot twice in the head by a member of a pro-government militia after Hassan told him he was a journalist. A month later, one of Somalia’s leading journalists, Radio HornAfrik manager Said Tahlil, was shot four times in the heart as he and other radio station managers were on their way to a meeting called by representatives of the Islamist Al-Shabaab militia in their stronghold in Mogadishu’s Bakara market. The vice-president of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), who worked for several foreign media including the BBC, was murdered in June 2008, as were eight other journalists in the course of 2007. A total of 11 journalists have been gunned down in just over two years.
Most of these murders were the work of Islamist insurgents called Al-Shabaab (The Youth), a militia formed of young radicals that used to be the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which was led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Al-Shabaab is now opposed to President Sharif Ahmed, regarding him as a pro-western “moderate”, just as it is opposed to all unionists, academics and journalists, who are branded as “traitors”.
Faced by all these dangers, dozens of journalists have opted to go into exile while others have given up working and are holed up in their homes. Those who continue to work are also under a permanent threat of arbitrary arrest and detention, whether in southern Somalia, where Mogadishu is located, in the autonomous northeastern region of Puntland, or in the breakaway northwestern territory of Somaliland. As well as being victims of political violence, Somali journalists are constantly harassed by local and provincial officials and security forces, who regard them as irritating witnesses of the chaos prevailing in Somalia.
Finally, kidnapping has become a widespread commercial occupation. In Puntland, where piracy and the smuggling of arms to the Gulf states is also now deeply entrenched, the lucrative kidnapping business is shared by small gangs based on clans that have their own militias, and their favourite victims include journalists who come to report on piracy. Gwen Le Gouil, a French freelance cameraman working for the Franco-German TV station Arte, was kidnapped for ransom in December 2007 and was freed a week later. A year later, Spanish photographer José Cendon and British reporter Colin Freeman were kidnapped for ransom and were held for more than a month near Bosasso. Canadian reporter Amanda Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, who were abducted on 23 August 2008 near Mogadishu, are still being held by their kidnappers.
Updated : May 2009
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