The killing of a Swedish photojournalist at a pro-government rally in Mogadishu underscored the dangers faced by journalists covering renewed political turmoil in Somalia, which has had no effective central administration since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
Against a background of military conflict between the U.N.-backed transitional government and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), journalists faced attacks, imprisonments, and censorship so pervasive that the National Union of Somali Journalists described 2006 as “the most dangerous year for press freedom for more than a decade.” Many attacks on journalists went unreported for fear of reprisal, according to the union, also known as NUSOJ. Both sides in the conflict abused press freedom as tensions escalated, driving the media to censor itself. The year was marked by dramatic shifts in the balance of power, with the ICU seizing the capital, Mogadishu, and a large swath of the south in early June only to be routed in late December when Ethiopia’s powerful military launched an all-out offensive in support of the transitional government.
The government, established by a peace conference of warlords and political leaders to restore order to Somalia, had previously been unable to establish authority much beyond its seat in Baidoa, 155 miles (250 kilometers) northwest of the capital. One of the riskiest topics for journalists in Baidoa was the movement of Ethiopian troops; prior to its direct military intervention on December 20, Ethiopia had denied having any troops inside Somalia. Addis Ababa sought to justify its late-year intervention by saying that the ICU, which had threatened holy war, menaced Ethiopian security. At year’s end, transitional government forces were in Mogadishu, still backed by Ethiopian troops, while the ICU had fled without a fight from its last stronghold in the southern city of Kismayo.
The ICU’s brief hold on power was marked by attacks and harassment of the press. On June 23, less then three weeks after seizing Mogadishu, the ICU organized a rally in the center of the capital. Martin Adler, an award-winning Swedish freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, was in the thick of the crowd filming when an unidentified gunman came up behind him and shot him in the back.
Adler, a long-time contributor to Britain’s Channel 4 News and several newspapers, including the Swedish daily Aftonbladet, died instantly. The gunman escaped. Several reports said Adler, 47, was filming demonstrators burning U.S. and Ethiopian flags. Anti-foreigner sentiment had been stoked by reports that the widely despised warlords who had opposed the ICU had received financial backing from the CIA to capture al-Qaeda suspects in Somalia. International journalists had previously been stoned or heckled while reporting on demonstrations, The Associated Press said.
NUSOJ reported that Adler was working outside the heavily guarded area where many other journalists and Islamist leaders were standing. The ICU condemned the murder and promised to investigate, but no one was brought to justice immediately. The murders of two journalists the previous year also remained unpunished. Kate Peyton of the BBC, one of several foreign reporters who entered the country to cover the peace process in early 2005, was shot outside her hotel in Mogadishu, while local radio journalist Duniya Muhyadin Nur was shot six months later while covering a protest near the capital.
In August, unidentified gunmen ambushed NUSOJ leaders on the road from Baidoa to Mogadishu, fatally shooting their driver, Madey Garas, according to NUSOJ Secretary-General Omar Faruk Osman. Another NUSOJ official who was in the car, Fahad Mohammed Abukar, was injured. Osman told CPJ that he, Abukar, and Garas were traveling with two bodyguards to Mogadishu, where they hoped to hold talks with ICU officials on press freedom issues. The attack took place in no-man’s-land, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) outside Baidoa. Osman said it was not clear what had motivated the attack. He said it had been well known that NUSOJ officials were traveling to Mogadishu.
The ICU showed increasing signs of intolerance to criticism. In July, authorities in Jowhar, an airport town 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of the capital, briefly detained Abdikarim Omar Moallim, a correspondent for the private, Mogadishu-based Radio Banadir, after he reported on clashes between militiamen and traders protesting new taxes. Although Moallim was released, ICU authorities banned him from continuing to work for Radio Banadir. In September, Islamist authorities jailed journalist Osman Adan Areys of the private station Radio Simba for two days in the western town of Beledweyne, then released him without charge. Local journalists said they believed the arrest was linked to interviews in which local residents criticized ICU-imposed restrictions. A CPJ source said the restrictions included a curfew in Beledweyne, which lies near the border with Ethiopia.
Also in September, the ICU closed the private station Radio Jowhar for two days, allowing it back on the air only after it agreed to tight restrictions on its musical content. The AP quoted an Islamic official, Sheik Mohamed Mohamoud Abdirahman, as saying that the station’s programs were “un-Islamic” and that it was “useless to air music and love songs for the people.”
Just over two weeks later, ICU militias closed a substation of HornAfrik Radio, a prominent private radio station, in the southern port town of Kismayo and detained three of its journalists for questioning about the station’s critical reporting. Sheik Ibrahim Mohamed, a spokesman for the Islamic courts in Kismayo, was quoted by the AP as saying, “We have arrested them for conveying wrong messages to the people that are against the Islamic courts.” A HornAfrik source told CPJ that the station had been covering demonstrations against the Islamists who took control of Kismayo on September 25. HornAfrik was allowed back on the air in Kismayo four days later. The broadcaster received a set of guidelines against playing love songs and airing reports critical of the ICU, Ahmed Abdisalam, one of HornAfrik’s managing partners, told CPJ. He said the station had not agreed to these conditions and would maintain its editorial independence. However, other local sources said its content had changed, and that critical news coverage was much more limited.
Attacks on the press by forces loyal to the transitional government also increased. In June, Maryan Mohamud Qalanjo, a reporter for the private, Mogadishu-based station Radio Shabelle, was assaulted twice by militias loyal to the Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA) in Baidoa, according to NUSOJ and other CPJ sources. The RRA controls the southwestern regions of Bay, in which Baidoa lies, and Bakool. Government officials accused Radio Shabelle of spreading “disinformation” about government leaders, including corruption allegations against Sharif Hassan Sheik Adan, speaker of the transitional parliament, NUSOJ reported.
Also in June, government authorities shut down Radio Shabelle’s local station in Baidoa after it broadcast a report saying that 300 Ethiopian soldiers had crossed into Somalia. Militiamen following orders from acting Interior Minister Col. Hassan Mohammed Nur entered the station and detained journalists Mohamed Adawe and Ali Mohamed Saed for about eight hours, according to the station’s deputy director, Mohamed Amiin. The transitional government gave no explanation for its action. For much of the year, the transitional government and Ethiopia denied the presence of any Ethiopian troops in Somalia.
In October, security forces of the transitional government arrested three radio journalists near Baidoa, holding two of them for nearly 10 days before releasing them without charge. Fahad Mohammed Abukar of Baidoa-based Warsan Radio, Mohammed Adawe Adam of Radio Shabelle, and Muktar Mohammed Atosh of HornAfrik Radio were arrested as they were returning to Baidoa from Burhakaba, which had been the scene of fighting between forces of the transitional government and the ICU. Police Chief Aaden Biid said authorities arrested the journalists because they filmed Ethiopian troops and government forces outside Baidoa, the AP reported. The journalists said they had been questioned about their activities and the content of their recordings in Burhakaba.
In December, authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, which is an ally of the transitional government, detained Abdi Aziz Guled, a correspondent for Radio Simba in Mogadishu, for more than two weeks without charge, according to local journalists. Authorities had accused him of reporting false information in a story about plans for a pro-Islamist demonstration in the Puntland city of Bossasso, according to NUSOJ.