Somali government forces largest radio broadcaster off air

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Originally published for the Toronto Star

By Michelle Shephard

The largest Somali radio broadcaster was forced off the air Saturday after police stormed the headquarters of Radio Shabelle and briefly detained the station’s three dozen journalists.

Shabelle, a privately owned and often controversial station, was based in a government building near Mogadishu’s airport, considered one of the safer areas of the capital. Its personnel had reportedly been warned months earlier of the eviction order but failed to comply with it.

Many of the station’s young employees live in the compound, rarely venturing out due to safety concerns. Since 2007, 10 Shabelle journalists have been killed in Somalia, considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters and photographers.

Al Shabab, the Somalia-based Al Qaeda group, often targets the media, but journalists also face threats from various Somali power brokers more accustomed to settling disputes with the gun.

Despite repeated attempts Saturday, Shabelle owner Abdi Malik Yusuf Mahmoud could not be reached for comment about the eviction.

But free press organizations, including the National Union of Somali Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, wrote in a letter Friday to Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdoon stating that the radio station had a lease agreement with the previous government until 2015, calling the decision to evict “arbitrary and disproportionate.”

Tom Rhodes, the East African consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said his organization is “very concerned” about the eviction.

“While the building was indeed government property, forcefully removing and detaining the staff by security is not the appropriate action to take. Further, Radio Shabelle journalists are some of the most targeted journalists in Somalia … whereby many fear leaving the station for their security. Forcefully removing them from the premises will not only affect their employment but potentially even their lives.”

Mahdi Ali, spokesperson for Somalia’s Minister of Interior and National Security, told the Star that the radio station had been warned earlier this year to find another property. He said they were illegally occupying the compound.
“Months ago we talked to them and told them we need the government building. They were given time. They decided not to leave and resisted the order,” Ali said in a telephone interview from Mogadishu.
Ali disputes allegations that the eviction was politically motivated following recent negative Shabelle reports about government officials.
“We don’t care what they say, what they preach or talk of. The core issue is the government wants to use the building again, that’s the bottom line.”

Like everything else in Somalia, journalism and tenancy are complicated. Despite the dangers, journalism remains one of the more prestigious careers in Mogadishu. But with most Somali institutions desecrated after two decades of conflict, journalism is no exception. Media standards are low, and journalists in Mogadishu are often influenced by business, clan or government disputes or are simply bribed.

Shabelle’s reputation had been tarnished in recent months amid allegations of slanderous journalism and extortion for stories.

Somalia’s government has also been accused of stifling free speech. Earlier this year it arrested a journalist who had interviewed a woman who said she was raped by government security forces.

The issue of land ownership is a larger contentious issue in the capital, which has seen an unprecedented construction boom and influx of foreign funding. Thousands of internally displaced refugees occupy buildings and camps throughout the capital. Their numbers soared during the 2011 famine and the government has slowly been trying to relocate them and reclaim the land they’ve been occupying.