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ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab: Preying on journalists with impunity

Extremist groups are targeting journalists in Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria. And the governments who should be protecting reporters seem unable or unwilling to do so

People look at the wreckage of a car at the scene of an explosion where local journalist Yusuf Keynan was killed in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, 21 June 2014
People look at the wreckage of a car at the scene of an explosion where local journalist Yusuf Keynan was killed in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, 21 June 2014

REUTERS/Feisal Omar

“He told me he was a dead man walking. He knew that he would be killed sooner or later for nothing else but his journalistic career. Every journalist working in Somalia shares similar thoughts – morbidly waiting for their day to come – as a routine part of life.” That's how broadcaster Muhyadin Ahmed Roble described his late colleague, Yusuf Ahmed Abukar, popularly known as Yusuf Keynan, in a blog post for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Keynan, an award-winning Radio Ergo correspondent and editor at Mustaqbal Radio, was killed on his way to work on 21 June, 2014 by an explosive device that had been placed in his car. While the perpetrators of the attack have yet to be held accountable, local journalists are almost certain that Keynan's murder was a direct retaliation for his journalistic activity. The 27-year-old reported on humanitarian issues and was often critical of both the Somali government and extremist rebel group Al Shabaab – subjects that routinely result in repercussions for Somali journalists.

Al-Shabaab targeting journalists in Somalia

Yusuf Keynan's death is an example of a disturbing trend: the murder of journalists by non-state actors – extremist groups angered by reporting on their activities, and actively targeting journalists with threats and violence. Because so many of the crimes remain unsolved, it's not possible to say exactly how many of the 56 journalists killed as a direct result of their work in Somalia since 1992 were killed by extremists. Still, experts agree that it happens in the country, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

In Somalia, Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militia group and affiliate of Al-Qaeda, has been waging a war against the Somali government since 2009, while carrying out bombings and killings of leading members of Somali civil society. The group has specifically targeted the media. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Al-Shabaab is responsible for most of the murders of journalists in Somalia since 2007. The non-state actors have taken actions to control the media in other ways as well. In 2010, Al-Shabaab took control of around 10 radio stations to ensure that they only broadcast political and religious propaganda, states RSF. Al-Shabaab has also issued directives on how to cover the news, and has banned cinema, videogames, and radio music. The insurgents have even created zones deemed “off-limits” to journalists.

No help: Somali government fosters climate of impunity

Al-Shabaab may be the culprit behind most attacks on reporters, but it is certainly not alone in contributing to a climate of impunity.

On 1 September 2014, Somalia's Council of Ministers passed a draft media law that would impose substantial fines on media houses who breach a code of ethics. Under the draft bill, they could be required to disclose confidential sources, and journalists could be accused of criminal offences for doing their jobs. In practical terms, this means that reporters who criticize how the government deals with Al-Shabaab, for example, could be criminally charged.

In a statement, the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) notes that this legislation permits Somali authorities to “… silence their critics, control independent media [and] disproportionately punish journalists.”

Beyond the use of legal mechanisms, Somali authorities have also been physically forceful in their attempts to control the official narrative. On 15 August 2014, for example, security forces raided and shut down Radio Shabelle and SkyFM, arrested 19 journalists and subsequently imprisoned and tortured several of them, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Boko Haram aims at journalists in Nigeria

Somalia is not the only Sub-Saharan African nation where journalists are silenced by extremists. It's happening in Nigeria, too.

An episode of Al Jazeera's Listening Post from May 2014 examines the challenges of reporting on Boko Haram in Nigeria. The extremist group – whose name translates from Hausa as “Western education is forbidden” – seeks to establish a strictly Muslim sharia state in Northern Nigeria. According to The Washington Post, Boko Haram-related violence killed more than 5,000 people between January and October 2014, and journalists have not been spared. Listening Post host Richard Gizbert says that the insurgent group views the media as “carriers of the western secular values the group opposes,” which makes it extremely difficult to report on any of the activities, particularly the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls earlier this year.

Boko Haram began targeted attacks on journalists three years ago, attacking those they believed to be “misrepresenting its activities.” The rebel group took responsibility for the murder of Zakariya Isa, who was reporting from Northern Nigeria in October 2011, and subsequently killed reporter Enenche Akogwu a few months later, according to CPJ. Not long after that, the insurgent group began bombing newspaper offices, and threatened to go after international media outlets.

No luck: Nigeria’s government fails to protect journalists

But when journalists began questioning President Goodluck Jonathan's commitment to countering Boko Haram's actions, the government responded by silencing them.
In June 2014, just a month after the Chibok schoolgirls were abducted, Nigerian military and police began detaining journalists, confiscated print publications and intercepted vehicles in an attempt to halt the circulation of critical information.

“Such clampdown on the media is simply unacceptable and does not help the government's fight against militants who are killing people indiscriminately, including innocent school children,” states a press release by the West African Journalists Association, referring to the events.

Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, 30 June 2014
Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, 30 June 2014


ISIS attacks journalists in Iraq and Syria

To the east of Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, Iraq, and in effect most other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, are struggling with a similar extremist presence. Iraq and Syria have been steadily descending into the ranks of failed states for some years now. What has been gaining traction as a result is the largest extremist threat in the region's modern history: ISIS, self-proclaimed as the Islamic State, better known in the Arab world as Daesh.

Born in part out of an Iraqi civil war that followed the US-led invasion in 2003 and in part as a result of the very recent and ongoing civil war in Syria, ISIS began making headlines three years ago. Today, it controls territory the size of Jordan.

During this time, Iraq and Syria have been among the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. In fact, Syria has topped that list two years in a row now.

According to a tally kept by RSF, two foreign journalists, eight Syrian journalists and one Iraqi journalist have been killed by ISIS, which is currently holding one foreign journalist hostage, and which has kidnapped at least 20 Iraqi journalists in Iraq.

The impunity with which abductions, murders, and torture are being carried out in ISIS-controlled areas has led to a desolate media landscape ridden with news black holes. The danger has forced countless journalists to flee the conflict and attempt to report on events from a safe distance. Those who have stayed have been forced to abide by the group's draconian rules, one of which bans journalists from publishing any reportage (print or broadcast) without referring to the [ISIS] media office first.

No relief: ISIS not alone in its oppression of journalists

Although ISIS militants may have been the most barbaric in their oppression of journalists in the region, they are not the only ones committing grave violations against reporters. In Syria, nearly 130 news providers have died since the conflict began in 2011, many killed in President Bashar al-Assad's prisons. Others have perished at the hands of Syrian opposition coalition groups.

Independent and honest reporting in Iraq, as in Syria, remains a common enemy targeted by all parties in the conflict. Security forces in the country have made it even harder for journalists to report by arresting those who criticize the government's position as well as shutting down media outlets, accusing them of “attacking security forces and Iraqi national unity”.

A global trend

Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Syria are countries with very different histories, cultures and governments. But the growing influence of extremist groups in all four nations means that journalists across these regions are subject to similar and distressing levels of violence and cycles of impunity.

Whether the perpetrators are Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or ISIS, these non-state actors are rarely brought to account. The fact that they operate outside of the law makes it difficult for governments with an already loose grip on their countries' state of affairs to effectively deal with them. The histories of conflict in all four of these countries also plays a significant role; governments going through this level of conflict have a tendency to further fuel the cycle of impunity by censoring, arresting and sometimes attacking journalists who question their response to an extremists' actions.

Unfortunately, the trend is not limited to these four countries. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen and Libya, to name a few, are also struggling with the presence of radical groups. For media workers in all of these countries, this makes truth-seeking an often solitary and potentially fatal activity.

Caro Rolando is the IFEX Section Editor for Africa, Europe and Central Asia. Hiba Zayadin is the IFEX Section Editor for the Middle East and North Africa.

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