About 20 journalists were killed in Somalia last year with most of the killers yet to be identified. A number of people who work in the media in Somalia migrate to neighbouring countries for fear of assassination. Mohammed Gawani, a Somali journalist living in Kenya recently attended an investigative journalism course in South Africa. In this interview with Daily Trust in Johannesburg, he says government has to investigate assault on journalists and prosecute perpetrators with a view to preventing further attacks. Excerpts:
May we know you?
My name is Mohammed Gawani, I work with the National Council of Somali Journalists, an association based in Mogadishu. It is a journalists watchdog with divisions in the country and with over 300 members from all over Somalia. We train journalists and monitor them. We try to portray the problems and challenges in the country as you may probably know that Somalia had no functional government for almost 22 years.
Do you practice your profession freely in Somalia?
Somalia is a hostile environment for journalists with over 50 journalists killed, 16 of them this year. Journalists are being intimidated, arrested and killed. It is the most hostile environment for journalists to work.
Why are journalists killed?
They talk about social issues such as corruption and challenges in the country. So each and every news item comes from certain group either the radical al-Shabab, government or business groups. If the news displeases other groups they will attack the reporters.
Did any group claim responsibility in the killing of journalists?
No group has accepted responsibility for killing a journalist apart from the extremist organization al-Shabab in some cases. They are powerful and they control certain regions in the country. They kill journalists. Now that the group is not as strong as before, they would not want any journalist to reveal their secret and those who do it risk death.
But al-Shabaab is still controlling some areas?
No, I can tell you they are losing ground; they are not as strong as before. The issue is that they are in the jungle and they have arms. Journalists don't have arms, so they can be killed at any time.
What is it that the al-Shabaab doesn't want the journalists to publish?
Each news item that is of public interest and against them is what they don't like. For example, the al-Shabab would extort money from the people and would not want anybody to report that. They order people to pay Zakkat for keeping animals such as camels and people would not want to give them anything because they are facing famine. These are the kinds of reports they don't want journalists to publish.
What is the government doing to protect journalists?
The government is very weak; it is guided by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which is not doing a good job to protect journalists. Our union is worried about what is happening especially since the government is not willing to prosecute anyone found responsible. Al-Shabab is not the only body that kills journalists; there are government officials who also kill journalists. Some are former government officials who are influential in the society. The union is trying to persuade the government to prosecute the people they have arrested in connection with some of the attacks. Because of the condition in which journalists found themselves, many are fleeing the country. About eight journalists are in exile. In 2011 about 50 journalists fled Somalia and in Kenya we have about 98 Somali journalists now. Most of them live in places like Nairobi and Kampala and are in deplorable conditions. Those in exile try as much as they can to communicate with people at home to get stories and pictures. It is easy to get facts online.
Now that peace is returning to Somalia, will you go home?
I don't believe there is peace in Somalia now. Until the African peace keepers are removed and functional institutions are put in place, there won't be peace there. We don't have a military. We have a small number of police and a significant number of trained militias who are being assisted by other African countries to fight al-Shabab. The country was weakened by the 22-year war and we are not standing on our feet while, extremists are still operating in the country, killing people.
What is the way out for journalists?
The best option to assist journalists is through advocacy and rights organizations to ensure that government investigates and prosecutes any crime against journalists as well as take decent measures to save them. Journalists need to be trained to be able to operate in Somalia.