A surge in violent attacks, threats, harassment and intimidation of media workers is making Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, Amnesty International said today.
In a new report - "We live in perpetual fear" - the organisation documents dramatic deterioration in media freedom since President Mohamed Abdullahi, also known as Farmajo, took office in February 2017.
Throughout his presidency journalists have had to contend with targeted attacks from both Al-Shabaab and government security forces, increased censorship and arbitrary arrests - forcing at least eight to flee the country.
Ahead of elections later this year, Amnesty is warning Somalian authorities not to undermine the right to freedom of expression.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa, said:
"Somali journalists are under siege. From barely surviving explosive-wired cars, being shot, beaten up and arbitrarily arrested, journalists are working in horrifying conditions.
"This crackdown on the right to freedom of expression and media freedom is happening with impunity - the authorities hardly investigate or prosecute perpetrators of attacks on journalists."
Under siege on all fronts
Amnesty's report shows how at least eight journalists have been killed in Somalia since President Farmajo took office. Five died in indiscriminate Al-Shabaab attacks, two were killed by unidentified attackers, and one was shot dead by a federal police officer.
Seventeen-year-old SBS TV cameraman Abdirirzak Qassim Iman was killed by a police bullet to his head on 26 July 2018, while returning from an assignment in Mogadishu's Waberi district. The policeman, Abdullahi Nur Ahmed, was convicted of murder and sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and ordered to pay 100 camels as compensation to the journalist's family. He is however hiding in Galmudug and continues to evade justice.
Journalists have also been victims to targeted attacks by terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Two journalists, Mohamed Sahal Omar and Hodan Nalayeh, were among 26 people killed in an Al-Shabaab attack in a Kismayo hotel in July 2019. Awil Dahir Salad from Universal TV was killed in an Al-Shabaab car bomb attack in Mogadishu in December 2018. Freelance cameraman, Ali Nur Siyad, was killed in a truck bomb attack that killed more than 500 people in Mogadishu on 14 October 2017. Abdullahi Osman Moalim died on 13 September 2017 from injuries sustained during a suicide bomb attack on a restaurant in Beledweyne, Hirshabelle state. Ismail Sheikh Khalifa, a journalist with Kalsan TV and media rights activist, miraculously survived when his explosives-wired car blew up as he drove from the office on 4 December 2018 - he is currently in Turkey nursing critical injuries.
"I knew they wanted to kill me"
Zakariye Mohamud Timaade, formerly with Universal TV, fled the country in June last year after being threatened by both Al-Shabaab and government security forces for two different stories he produced. Al-Shabaab were angered by his report about the capture of three of its members by national security forces and threatened him with death, saying he "would be killed before the three Al-Shabaab men were executed".
Another story he did in May last year angered security officials because it showed Al-Shabaab were active in Mogadishu. He was summoned and interrogated then sent off with a warning to keep off "security issues", but received several threatening calls forcing him to flee.
Zakariye Mohamud Timaade, said: "The biggest fear for me was from NISA (National Intelligence and Security Agency) ... I knew they wanted to kill me. In Mogadishu, you can hide from Al-Shabaab, but you cannot hide from NISA; they could easily pick me from my office. I decided to leave."
Amnesty also documented examples of censorship and allegations of bribery of media outlets by the Somalia government. Officials at the Office of the President reportedly paid monthly bribes to some media owners and directors not to publish "unfavourable" stories.
One former media director said: "I used to get a phone call from the official at the Office of the President and would meet with him at a hotel and collect the cash from him. He never allowed to deposit the money in my bank account."
Journalists interviewed said their editors ordered them not to write articles critical of the offices of the President and Prime Minister, or about insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations.
Amnesty documented four cases of journalists fired by their employers for defying censorship orders.
Social media hounding
Pervasive censorship in Somalia has forced many journalists to turn to social media to express their opinions, but authorities have set up dedicated teams to monitor and report critical content.
Journalists said government officials aggressively threatened them with serious consequences if they refused to remove critical content from their personal social media accounts.
One journalist was forced out of his job for supporting an opposition politician on his Facebook page. He refused to change his stance, despite coercion by Office of the President staffers, who even contacted one of his former college teachers to persuade him to abandon journalism altogether.
Amnesty documented 16 Facebook accounts - 13 of which belonged to journalists - that had been permanently disabled between 2018 and 2019, reportedly for violating Facebook "Community Standards".
Deprose Muchena said:
"Facebook must ensure it is not manipulated by the Somalia authorities to undermine the right to freedom of expression, especially ahead of the elections later this year.
"President Farmajo must take immediate steps to ensure prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigations into myriad allegations of violations of human rights and media freedom. Those suspected to be responsible must be brought to justice in fair trials."