Reporters Without Borders condemns the long jail sentences that a court in Hargeisa, the capital of the autonomous northwestern region of Somaliland, imposed yesterday on Hassan Hussein Abdullahi, the editor of the Hargeisa-based daily Hubaal, and Mohamed Ahmed Jama, the newspaper's manager.
Abdullahi was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 2 million Somaliland shillings (1,100 euros) and Jama was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of 1 million Somaliland shillings (550 euros) for allegedly libelling foreign diplomats and Somaliland's president.
"The jailing of Abdullahi and Jama is a gross violation of freedom of expression," Reporters Without Borders said. "This decision by Somaliland's judicial authorities violates the region's legislation, which stipulates that media offences must be tried before a civil court, not a criminal one.
"The way the judicial authorities and police have worked together to gag outspoken journalists with complete impunity is deplorable and unacceptable. We condemn this campaign of harassment by Somaliland's authorities against the region's media and we call for the immediate and unconditional release of these two Hubaal journalists."
Omar Faruk Osman, the secretary-general of the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), described the sentences as among the severest every passed on journalists in Somalia.
Abdullahi (who is also known as Keefkeef) and Jama were convicted on charges of defamation, falsification and publishing false news in connection with two articles published in the newspaper.
One, published on 21 January, accused Hargeisa-based Ethiopian diplomats of smuggling drugs. The other, published on 10 June, reported that Somaliland President Ahmed Mahmud Silanyo was in poor health and had relinquished responsibilities to the state minister for presidency.
On 17 June, NUSOJ issued a statement criticising the closure of the Hubaal Media Group, which publishes Hubaal and an English-language weekly, The Independent. It was closed under a Hargeisa court order issued on 11 June at justice minister Adan Ahmed Musa's request.
NUSOJ also reported that two gunmen attacked Hubaal's offices on 24 April, when Jama and two colleagues were present, and a ricocheting bullet injured Jama's right hand during the attack. One of the gunmen was formally identified as a Hargeisa police officer, Ahmed Hashi Hassan, but no action was taken against him.
Abdullahi and Jama were placed in Hargeisa prison at 10 p.m. yesterday. Their lawyer, Adburahaman Mohamoud, said they would appeal against their conviction. Hubaal meanwhile remains closed.
Somalia is ranked 175th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.