"I'm free but I don't feel free," said Mohamed Abdi Urad, chief editor of Yool, a critical weekly published in the semi-autonomous republic of Somaliland. Mohamed had just been released on May 22 after a week in detention at Hargeisa Central Police Station. His crime? "I have no idea," he said. Mohamed had attempted to cover a deadly skirmish between civilians and a military unit over a land dispute in the eastern part of the capital, Hargeisa. "The Interior Minister just saw me walking towards the scene and ordered his men to arrest me," he said. A few days later, police released Mohamed unconditionally and without charge.
Arbitrary arrests and other forms of intimidation have become the order of the day for Somaliland's press. Although they had hopes for greater media freedom under the leadership of President Ahmed Mohamoud Silyano, who was elected in June 2010, conditions have deteriorated under his government to the worst levels since Somaliland declared itself an independent republic in 1991, local journalists told me.
"Many journalists wore blindfolds when Silyano came to power," said BBC reporter Jamal Abdi. Most media supported Silyano's election bid, having grown tired of former President Dahir Riyale, who had delayed elections for three years and whose final years were mired in corruption, local journalists said. "We were all desperate for change," said Abdiweli Farah, chief editor of independent weekly Ogaal. "We also remember what they said during the election campaigns--that they would push to allow more independence in the media, improve freedom of expression, etc.--but things only got worse."
This year marks the heaviest crackdown that Somaliland's fledgling independent press has experienced, according to Mohamed Rashid, secretary-general of the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA). Authorities have arrested and temporarily detained nearly 60 journalists so far this year, all without charge, according to SOLJA and CPJ research.
The worst incident in terms of number occurred in January, after police arbitrarily shuttered the independent broadcaster Horn Cable TV and arrested 22 journalists shortly afterwards for protesting the closure. "We were covering the president's annual address to parliament and in the conclusion of the speech our station was somehow called 'enemies of the state. We were all surprised," said Horn Cable's owner and director, Farhan Ali Ahmed. Six hours after the president's speech, police raided Horn Cable's two offices and closed the station for two days without explanation. Some journalists in custody who protested the closure were beaten, according to SOLJA's Rashid and international news reports.
"After that incident it became evident to us that arrests can happen any time under the new ruling party. But we are still doing our regular reporting despite the risks," Farhan said.
Many local journalists do not blame the ruling "Kulmiye" (Peace and Unity) party as a whole but individuals within the government who target the press with impunity. "The previous government followed the constitution to a degree--they would not arrest without a warrant, for instance," Farhan said. "But this government has some uneducated members who do not think of the consequences of their actions and cannot accept criticism." Whether unknowingly or otherwise, many government officials ignore their own laws and detain critical journalists, says the director of the Somaliland Lawyers Association, Mohamed Said Hersi. "Even the governor of Hargeisa along with elders was detained for over a month without charge despite a 48-hour detention limit by Somaliland law," Mohamed said. A SOLJA investigation discovered that no courtroom in Somaliland except for those based in the capital Hargeisa even had a copy of Somaliland's 2004 media law. "Thus journalists are automatically arrested under the penal code, ignoring the press law completely," said executive SOLJA member and BBC reporter Barkhad Kaariye.
In the restive border town Las Anod, tension between separatist movements has led to further suppression of the press. In this disputed region between Somaliland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, residents claim different affiliations--with Somaliland, Puntland, and even a self-declared separatist state of Khatumo, according to local reports. Reporting on the succession movements can lead to imprisonment, with at least eight journalists arrested in Las Anod since April, according to CPJ research. "It is a very remote region where unfortunately the governor does whatever he wants," said Deputy Parliament Speaker Baashe M. Farah, who also comes from the disputed region.
Many local journalists concede that the government crackdown on the press is partly rooted in the unprofessional practices of the media. Websites in particular, local journalists told me, are prone to professional lapses since many are launched and managed by one individual. "The media is often very new, inexperienced and unprofessional--especially in politically sensitive areas such as Las Anod and Borama," Presidential Spokesman Abdullahi Mohamed said. Journalists often report on government corruption issues with no sources to support their claims and their stories are designed to sell newspapers rather than uncover genuine malpractice, the deputy speaker added. "It's a Somali tradition." Farah said. "The public wants dirt on ministers--they will look at the headlines and if there is no dirt to be read, they won't buy the publication. So it behooves the press to act like a tabloid." Chief Editor Mohamed Abdi Jama of the critical weekly Waheen concedes that unprofessional standards have partly triggered the animosity between Somaliland's government and press. "But what is worse--a press that makes mistakes and does not follow best practices or a government that does not follow its own rules?" he said.
While many journalists admit a lack of professionalism is a problem, government officials also concede that they need to change their approach towards the press. "Really, all these attacks against the press is not good for any journalist and it is not good for the country," said recently appointed Information Minister Abdirahman Yusuf. "At the same time, journalists need to understand their trade--what is an insult and what is libelous and what not."
The information minister also told CPJ that the government plans to enact a long-awaited broadcast law to allow private radio broadcasters. "I already have around six or seven applicants for a radio license on my desk and have discussed the matter with the speaker," he said. In 2002, Somaliland issued a ministerial decree banning all private radio stations, allowing only state-run Radio Hargeisa to operate. The station covers only a 40 kilometer (25 mile) range and often airs pro-government, poor quality coverage, local journalists said. "There is a reason the government allows television but not radio," Horn Cable TV owner Farhan said. "TV does not have the same reach radio stations would have--they fear a vernacular radio. We would be the first to apply if they allowed private radio stations." Ahmed Kijandhe, head of a parliamentary sub-committee that will review the bill, told CPJ the committee plans to hold a consultative meeting with the press over the broadcast bill and table it in June.
The lack of private radio stations explains why Somaliland has several newspapers and a high number of television stations compared with Somalia and Puntland. There are about 10 newspapers, three government-owned, and four TV broadcasters.
Despite the arrests and harassment against the independent press this year, some local journalists are encouraged. "The public is waking up, they want us to continue," said Mohamed Abdi Jama. "These days the public asks us to write stories to push the government. At Gebbele River, for instance, citizens wanted sand placed on the road to stop flooding. So citizens called us up and asked us to write something to get a government reaction." And while private radio stations are still not allowed, a plethora of news websites has emerged, despite low Internet penetration rates. "I am convinced websites will make the biggest change to Somaliland society," said Information Minister Yusuf.