Killed for telling the truth

It is the journalists that are telling the world what is happening… This is why everyone wants to silence us. I have thought I will die in this job, but even when I am scared I can’t be silent because, if I do not tell these stories, no one will protect the civilians. We are their only advocates.” – A Somali journalist

Journalists in Somalia are being killed for reporting the truth about the country’s bloody conflict, according to research by Amnesty International.

At least nine journalists have been killed since February 2007, five of them in intentionally targeted attacks. Many more have been threatened, arbitrarily arrested and harassed. Over 50 journalists have fled the country. The crackdown on independent media has seen newspapers and radio stations forcibly shut down.

Among the dead include Ali Iman Sharmarke, head of the HornAfrik media company, who was killed by a car bomb in August while he was on his way home from the funeral of a murdered colleague.

Death threats
Fighting between Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government forces (TFG) and armed opposition groups in Somalia has escalated since November 2007. Journalists say they have received death threats from both sides –attempts to silence reporting of human rights violations.

Journalists who fled the capital Mogadishu have told Amnesty International that they regularly received death threats by mobile phone, particularly when they reported on the conflict.

Many were from people identifying themselves as TFG security officers, demanding to know why incidents or military operations had been reported. Amnesty International was also told of threats made by the armed groups.

“I wrote a story that two insurgents were killed. I was called on my mobile, and the caller said, ‘Why did you write that?’ I said, ‘It is the truth, I have to write it’. He said, ‘You are going to be in the list which we are going to kill’,” said one journalist.

Censorship and closure
TFG forces have repeatedly closed media outlets, particularly Mogadishu-based radio stations, following news reports that reflected negatively on the TFG or broadcasts of interviews with members of armed opposition groups.

In 2007, these closures had been steadily increasing in duration, with Shabelle Radio and Simba Radio closed from 12 November until 3 December by the Governor of Banadir Region and Mayor of Mogadishu, Mohamed Dheere.

He was quoted ordering media houses to cease reporting on military operations without prior written consent, also warning: “Interviewing government opponents inside and abroad is forbidden and any journalists or any radio station (which) transmits their views… will be considered a criminal.”

Media offices attacked
TFG troops attacked the Shabelle Radio office in Mogadishu on 18 October 2007, following a nearby grenade attack against them. They fired automatic weapons into the second and third floor windows for more than five hours, trapping several journalists inside and injuring a security guard.

Journalists told Amnesty International they believed they were going to die, and had called their families to say goodbye.

“We got under the tables. They used a vehicle-mounted machine gun. The bullets came in, smashing all the windows. They were firing for hours. Eventually we escaped one by one from one of the doors at the back. After this, the troops based themselves there at our office, and we weren’t able to work until 1 November.”

Two weeks later, a security guard from the office of HornAfrik had his throat cut during a raid by Ethiopian troops. This brutal act prompted many journalists to flee Mogadishu in fear for their own safety.

“When we saw that one of us was slaughtered by the Ethiopian troops, we were afraid that they would do this to us,” one said.

Journalists in Somalia who report on the conflict are vital to the defence of human rights. Michelle Kagari, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Africa Programme, said they believe attacks on the media are intended to hide violations of those rights.

“The organization is calling on the authorities in Somalia to respect and protect freedom of expression and to protect journalists from systematic attacks. It also calls on Ethiopian forces in Somalia and armed opposition groups to stop the intimidation and attacks against journalists and the media,” said Michelle Kagari.