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IFEX members collaborate and advocate to stop violence against Somalia's journalists

2007 was a brutal year for Somali journalists: nine reporters were killed, 53 media professionals were arrested, and five media houses were closed down, reports the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ). Press freedom violations skyrocketed by over 85 percent from the previous year, as political unrest and civil war escalated.

"This terrible record has given Somalia the unwelcome titles of 'most dangerous country in Africa for journalists' and the 'second most perilous place for journalists in the world, after Iraq'," says Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ's secretary general.

To draw attention to the dangers journalists in this war-torn country face, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) honoured the late Somali-Canadian journalist Ali Iman Sharmarke in November 2007 with the Tara Singh Hayer Award, which recognises Canadians for courage in journalism.

In 1999, Sharmarke had returned to Somalia from exile in Canada, to launch Horn Afrik – the country's first independent television and radio station. He was killed last August, when his car drove over a remote-controlled landmine as he was returning from the funeral of another journalist, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, who had been murdered.

Efforts made for exiled journalists

"As a journalist, you are the enemy of all groups in Somalia so you are extremely vulnerable," says Falastin Ahmed Iman, a journalist from Horn Afrik.

Iman was a survivor of the same blast that killed Sharmarke, and fled to Kenya soon after the incident. She joins more than 55 other journalists who were forced to leave the south-central regions of Somalia for Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Europe last year. Many of these media professionals lack identification or immigration papers and thus are vulnerable to deportation. They find it difficult to financially support themselves and their families. Iman says journalists also fear losing their skills and their career since it can be difficult to practise their profession in exile.

Several IFEX members have been working together, along with other human rights organisations, to support Somali journalists in exile like Iman, through emergency funds and professional development support.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is working with East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (EHAHRD-Net), and seeking other partners, in the building a safe house for exiled journalists from the region. In response to the crisis in Somalia, in December NUSOJ established a safe house in Djibouti after authorities shut down an existing one they had founded in Hargeisha (Somaliland). The organisation has also visited exiled journalists in Africa and Europe, writing letters of support to immigration authorities to help with their asylum cases, and coordinating advocacy and financial support with IFEX members and other organisations.

"Almost all exiled journalists have protection and financial support, thanks to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), CPJ, EHAHRD-Net, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), Freedom House, Rory Peck Trust, Journalists Help Journalists, ARTICLE 19, International News Safety Institute (INSI), World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and Amnesty International," says Faruk Osman. "These groups have been working cooperatively to coordinate their support."

To mark International Human Rights Day on 10 December, ARTICLE 19 and NUSOJ, along with EHAHRD-Net, Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Adviser for Somalia, coordinated a joint advocacy event to spotlight the situation of Somalia's journalists. The initiative was combined with the launch of a two-week training programme for exiled journalists in Nairobi, Kenya, that included workshops on media and conflict reporting, self-regulation, media ethics, media and gender, media and elections and good governance. It was sponsored by the French embassy in Nairobi.

"There was overwhelming enthusiasm from Somali journalists for the training and the numbers wanting to participate, which significantly exceeded what we expected. Since the renewed violence in Somalia, there seems to be an overwhelming and increasing need to support exiled Somali journalists," says Roxanne Abdulali, ARTICLE 19's Africa programme officer.

Raising the call for journalists' safety through joint action

The situation inside Somalia remains extremely dangerous for the many journalists who regularly suffer verbal abuse, harassment and intimidation at the hands of government authorities and warlords. Many free expression violations are going unreported, largely due to fears of reprisal.

IFEX members and other organisations are keeping journalists' safety inside Somalia in the headlines and on political agendas by continuing to monitor and raise awareness of free expression violations as well as through coordinated joint actions.
"Discussion on safety of the journalists should be the most important issue – how to improve safety through practical actions, as well as pursue coordination at the national and international levels," says Thomas Hughes, deputy director of International Media Support (IMS).

So IMS is organising an informal meeting this spring among national and international media support actors working on Somalia, with a specific look at the press freedom and media safety environments. IMS has also been working with ARTICLE 19 and other IFEX members to support the development and implementation of Somalia's media law. As IMS points out, while the draft law was approved by the Transitional Federal Parliament on its first reading in December 2007, there is a need to revise it substantially to bring it into line with international standards.

NUSOJ will be sending a delegation to the UN Human Rights Council's March 2008 session to testify on the situation of freedom of expression and of the press in Somalia, as well as on the broader human rights situation.

Also in March, the CPJ is planning a mission to Somaliland/Somalia, which will involve meetings with government officials in Somaliland (Hargeisa) and Somalia (Baidoa) to advocate for government protection of Mogadishu journalists and amendments to the Somalia/Somaliland media laws. CPJ is interested in collaborating on the mission. Interested groups can contact CPJ's Africa programme coordinator, Tom Rhodes, at: [email protected]

By Katie Meyer, IFEX Alerts/Outreach Coordinator.

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