Nairobi — Somali authorities have been stepping up their intimidation of journalists as the country faces a growing number of Covid-19 cases. Since mid-April 2020 alone, authorities arbitrarily detained three journalists, accused two of various crimes, and prohibited a local radio station from broadcasting in a local dialect.
As of April 30, Somalia had 601 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 28 deaths reported. The country is also scheduled to hold general elections in late 2020 or early 2021, possibly the country's first open election in 50 years. Somali authorities should use World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2020, to commit to ending arbitrary arrests and harassment of journalists.
"Somali authorities should stop jailing and harassing journalists at the very time when getting the news is crucial," said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "An independent media protected from abuse is key to ensuring that Somalis have information to make informed decisions during the pandemic."
On April 20, in the town of Baidoa, the authorities detained a Voice of America (VOA) reporter, Mukhtar Mohamed Atosh, and held him for two nights before releasing him on April 22. A court document stated that he was under investigation on charges of "publication of false, exaggerated news" and "giving false alarm to the authorities."
Mukhtar told Human Rights Watch that the regional police questioned him about an April 19 VOA news story in which he reported on the alleged rape of three women on the road between Mogadishu and Baidoa and the death of one from her injuries.
On April 14, the police summoned Abdiaziz Ahmed Gurbiye, the chief editor and deputy director of the private Goobjoog Media Group, to the Hodan police station in Mogadishu, where there was a warrant for his arrest. This followed two posts on his Facebook pages criticizing the Somali government's response to the Covid-19 crisis. One post alleged that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ("Farmajo") had taken one of the few ventilators recently donated to a hospital in Mogadishu.
On April 15, prosecutors before the Benadir regional court said that they were investigating Abdiaziz on charges of "offending the prestige and honor of the head of state" and "publication of false news," among other provisions. Conviction on these charges can be punished with up to three years in prison. The judge ordered Abdiaziz transferred to Mogadishu Central Prison pending investigation. On April 18, he was released on bail.
On April 2, Somalia's National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) posted on its Twitter account that it was investigating of VOA, a prominent, veteran United States-based journalist and co-author on a book on Al-Shabab, as having "links that are a threat to national security" and accused him of engaging in actions "outside of the media code of conduct." On April 23, the that it had completed the investigation and was handing over the file to the country's attorney general.
According to Somali journalist organizations, the authorities arrested journalist Mohamed Abidwahab Nur (known as Abuja) on March 7 and held him incommunicado. On April 22, after the journalist organizations , the Ministry of Information that he was being detained by security agencies and under investigation for Al-Shabab membership and murder.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Federal Attorney General Suleiman Mohamed Mohamud on April 28 asking for details of the status of the investigations into Abdiaziz, Harun, and Mohamed Abuja but did not receive a response.
On April 24, the police briefly held Farhan Mohamed Hussein, a reporter with Radio Kulmiye, while covering a sudden outbreak of protests against the police, after the police fatally shot two people during a coronavirus curfew. They detained Farhan shortly after he arrived at the scene of the shootings, and took him to the Bondhere district police station, where he was forced to delete his photos and audio, and then released him.
On April 20, in the coastal town of Barawe, District Commissioner Omar Sheikh Abdi ordered a private community radio station, Radio Barawe, to stop broadcasting programs in Barwani, the local dialect. The order followed an April 17 broadcast on Universal TV network of a program featuring Radio Barawe. The station director said that the district commissioner arrived at the station at 8:30 p.m. with armed guards and ordered him to stop the broadcast. After significant public outcry and a statement from the region's governor, the station was able to resume its Barwani programing late on April 21.
Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, as they face threats and attacks from government officials, private individuals, and the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab. Impunity for killings of journalists remains the norm. Journalists seeking to report on security issues and human rights abuses have regularly faced harassment and intimidation and many have been compelled to resort to self-censorship. These problems have increased during previous pre-election periods. Amnesty International has reported that Somalia's current government regularly threatens, harasses, and interferes with the social media accounts of journalists who post critical comments.
The country's outdated penal code, which came into force in 1964, includes a number of vague and overly broad crimes, including criminal defamation; offending the honor and prestige of the head of state; insulting a public officer or institution; and contempt against the nation, state, or flag, that contravene regional and international human rights standards.
The authorities have used these vague criminal laws on a number of occasions to silence critical reporting and commentary, Human Rights Watch said. The police detained another popular Goobjoog journalist, Ali Adan Mumin, for three days in May 2019 and accused him of insulting public officials in Facebook posts criticizing the country's intelligence agency. He has since fled the country, fearing for his security.
A Human Rights Watch report in March 2020 on the human rights dimensions of the Covid-19 response and government obligations noted that governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. Any restrictions on this right must be lawful, proportionate, and necessary to achieve legitimate objectives. Access to timely and accurate information and open public debate are crucial for addressing the public health crisis.
The Somali government should ensure that the public is kept informed and that people are allowed to express their views, including to criticize the government's response to Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said.
"The free flow of information is especially important in addressing and curbing the Covid-19 pandemic," Bader said. "The government should be encouraging coverage of the pandemic and taking to heart people's concerns and fears, rather than trying to stop the flow of information."