As Assassins Target Somali Journalists, Fear Is a Daily Event

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 12, 2007

NAIROBI -- Since two of his colleagues were assassinated in September, Said Tahlil has come to speak of his own violent death as a near certainty. Being a journalist in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, he has made his peace with God and locked himself up in his offices at Horn Afriq radio station, where he is acting director.

He now sleeps there. He eats there. He bathes there. He wakes up before dawn and works on broadcasts there into the evening. And when he is feeling emboldened, he said, he ventures outside to the edge of the gated compound and looks out at the urban battlefield that his city has become, a place of remote-controlled bombs, mortars and plainclothed assassins, where journalists are now prime targets.

"I've been in this compound for two months," Tahlil said by phone recently. "I don't go anywhere. I will not go to my home. I will not go to the market. After they killed my boss and my friend, I am scared of everything. I'm like an imprisoned person here."

With the exception of Iraq, no country has been more deadly for journalists this year than Somalia, which has been engulfed by violence since December, when invading Ethiopian troops ousted an Islamic movement and installed a U.S.-backed transitional government.

An insurgency of Islamic fighters and clan militias has been battling Ethiopian and Somali government troops for months, with all sides, it seems, devoted to crushing any perceived dissent.

According to media watchdog groups, eight Somali journalists have been killed in what appear to be targeted assassinations this year, most in Mogadishu. Among them was Tahlil's friend, Mahad Ahmed Elmi, who hosted a popular talk show on Horn Afriq called "Hello! Hello!" and was shot at point-blank range near the station in August. Tahlil's boss, Ali Iman Sharmarke, co-owner and co-director of the station, was killed by a bomb as he returned from Elmi's funeral the same day.

Last month, Bashir Nur Gedi, acting director of the popular network Radio Shabelle, was killed in a blaze of an assassin's bullets.

While it remains unclear who was responsible for the killings, Somali journalists say threats have come from the Somali government, from Ethiopian troops and from hard-line members of the insurgency, who sometimes put photos of journalists on their Web site like most-wanted posters.

Other times, the threats take the form of two simple words on a cellphone screen: "private number."

"I received an anonymous call last month," said Ahmed Salah Salim, a senior producer for Shabelle, whose shows include one with the roughly translated title "Peace Way." "He said, 'You can't present programs against us,' and I said, 'Who are you?' And he said, 'You will know if you keep doing what you are doing.' "

Salim said he has been arrested four times by Somali government troops unhappy with his program. Once, a soldier held a gun to his head and told him to kneel, until a cooler-minded superior stepped in.

Since the anonymous call, he said, he is not taking unnecessary chances.

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