The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, has today expressed concern at the worsening climate of arrests and threats against independent journalists in Somalia and called on authorities to protect journalists from police violence.

In recent months, a pattern of arrests, intimidation and censorship of media outlets has emerged as governments and security forces attempt to regain control over a country plagued by regional disputes and ongoing conflicts ahead of planned milestone elections next year.

Last month, journalists were arrested, a radio station was raided by armed police, and internet laws were used to block access to critical investigative reports.

In the latest incidents, on Monday October 14, freelance TV journalist Abdiaziz Hassan Moalim, 24, was followed home and arrested by security forces for reporting on violent anti-government protests in the city of Jowhar, according to local media reports.

The journalist was detained for one night before being released without charge on Tuesday morning, Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, secretary general of the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), a media rights group based in Mogadishu, told the IPI.

The same day, journalists covering protests in Jowhar also reported being threatened by police. In one incident, several journalists reported clearly hearing Police Commissioner, Capt. Mohamed Ali Siyad give his troops “shoot to kill orders” for any journalists who attempted to approach the scene, Mumin noted.

Then on Tuesday October 15, RTN TV, a privately owned station in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in north-eastern Somalia, was raided by officers looking for reporter Abdiqani Ahmed Mohamed, who had published interviews criticizing the region’s president, according to local reports.

IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said this week’s incidents were part of a wider pattern of intimidation against independent journalists and censorship of critical reporting.

“The ability of the media to do its job, report freely on important issues, and criticize the authorities is a central factor in the development of Somalia’s fledgling democracy”, he said. “While we welcome the swift release of Abdiaziz Hassan Moalim, we call on federal and regional authorities in Somalia to refrain from carrying out further arbitrary arrests and halt the forced closure of radio and TV stations.

“Moreover, we are deeply concerned by reports of orders given to police to shoot-to-kill journalists attempting to cover events and call for an immediate investigation into those responsible for giving the command.”

Increasing repression

While Somalia has never been an easy place for journalists to work, violations against press freedom have become more frequent in recent months.

In 2018, a total of 19 journalists were arrested in Somalia, including the semi-autonomous Puntland region and the autonomous, self-declared state of Somaliland, according to SJS data. So far in 2019, this figure has already risen to 29, Mumin told IPI.

While a number of factors were at play, two main issues stood out which explain the increase, he said.

“The first is the upcoming regional and national elections”, he said. “This has seen the cycle of violence against journalists worsen as the government attempts to control coverage and stop critical reporting.

“The second is the ongoing security situation in Somalia. While we recognize that authorities are trying to reimpose law and order, they are doing so by silencing the media and clamping down on freedom of expression.”

He added that Somalia had one of the worst records in the world for impunity for attacks and killings of journalists.

Recent violations

On September 25, independent journalist Abdulkadir Barre Moallim was arrested for covering a press conference organised by local elders in Baidoa city. A couple of weeks earlier, two TV journalists were stopped at gunpoint by armed police in the city of Galkayo, where they were harassed and briefly arrested.

Meanwhile, TV and radio stations have been taken off air for critical or unfavourable reporting. On September 14, armed officers also forcibly entered the studio of Radio Daljir in Puntland and took the station off air for three hours after it broadcast an investigative news report about the death of a prisoner from alleged torture.

Authorities have also used internet laws to censor media reports. On September 3, Puntland’s minister of information ordered internet regulators to block the independent news website over an article it published about protests by civil servants over alleged unpaid salaries.

Meanwhile, last month the Puntland information ministry also brought in new rules to force journalists and media outlets register for government-certified identification cards. The move was criticized by press freedom groups as a move to control the work of critical journalists.