The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today strongly condemned the arbitrary arrest of Mukhtar Mohamed Atosh, a reporter for the Voice of America and urged the authorities to release him immediately.

Atosh was arrested on Monday by the South West State police in the Baidoa city center, and transferred to to the Criminal Investigation Department’s headquarters for detention until the completion of investigations against him.

The VOA journalist was arrested for an April 19 report about an alleged rape and death of a 14-year old-girl. The authorities had instructed the hospital where the girl was admitted not to release information about the case. However, Atosh managed to gather information and report the incident. His arrest was carried out by a dozen of police officers led by Amin Mohamed Osman, the divisional  commander for the Bay region.

According to the Somali Journalists Syndicate, on April 21, the Bay Regional Court ordered the police to hold Atosh in custody indefinitely and to transfer him to Baidoa’s central prison without even offering the journalist a chance to be heard before the court or to have him represented by a lawyer. The journalist is accused of violating the country’s penal code and faces a sentence ranging from six months to a year in prison. The charges include, among others, spreading exaggerated news that disturb the public order and of causing public panic.

“The high-handed approach of the Somali government to stifle independent media and attack critical journalists is an affront to press freedom”, IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said. “The government should stop harassing and intimidating independent media outlets and journalists. Frequent arrests of journalists and arbitrary closure of media outlets are forcing editors and journalists to practice self-censorship.”

Meanwhile, on April 20, authorities closed down Radio Barawe, a community radio station broadcasting in Baravanese dialect, in Barawe town in Lower Shabelle region, on the pretext that the dialect was not recognized by the government and therefore it was illegal to use it for broadcasting news and entertainment programmes.

Over the past weeks, police briefly detained four journalists for their reporting about the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the prime minister declaring media an essential service. While one journalist was accused of spreading fake news, another was arrested for reporting about smuggling khat, an herbal intoxicant, and two others were attacked by the police while they were interviewing people about the shortage of masks.