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.

When he goes to work these days, he zigzags across the city like a hunted man, varying his routes to avoid any kind of predictable pattern. Other times, like Tahlil, he just sleeps at his office for days.

"I'm afraid for my life, but if I'm a journalist I must struggle," Salim said. "I must do my job impartially."

Being a journalist in Somalia has never been easy.

During the reign of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in the 1980s, there was one radio station, one television station and one newspaper, offering mostly government propaganda and weekly economics lectures by Siad Barre, who referred to himself as "The Lion of Africa."

After his fall in 1991, the news media fragmented into hundreds of tiny outlets, each associated with a particular clan or sub-clan. There were at least 100 newspapers and at least 20 radio stations as cabals of warlords took over, routinely harassing reporters who challenged them.

In that atmosphere, Shabelle and Horn Afriq established themselves in the late 1990s as Somalia's first relatively independent and well-respected media outlets.

Shabelle broadcasts throughout Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, while Horn Afriq reaches most of the country and, via satellite, large swaths of the Somalia diaspora in cities from Nairobi to London to Minneapolis.

While some radio stations were shut down during the six-month rule of the Union of Islamic Courts last year, the atmosphere for journalists has become even more repressive since the U.S.-backed government of President Abdullahi Yusuf came to power.

Yusuf and his Ethiopian backers have targeted not only insurgents but also religious leaders, democracy activists and anyone else thought to support the opposition. Shabelle and Horn Afriq have been shut down by the Somali government numerous times; their offices have been raided and wrecked by troops.

These days, it is potentially a life-or-death decision whether to report such basic information as the number of civilians killed in a gunfight. Talk-show hosts realize they may be putting their lives at risk to air a program on good governance.

When they are called to a government news conference, reporters often confer, trying to decide whether it might be a government trap to arrest them. One reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled debating with himself for hours whether to report that the son of a high-ranking insurgent commander had been killed.

"A bunch of journalists were afraid to report the incident," he said, "but it was the truth that this man's son was killed."

In the end, he decided to report it.

"Since I have chosen this profession, I have decided to tell the truth to the wider society," he said. "So, I trust God and say the truth."

If it gets to the point where he feels he cannot, he said, he will leave.

Many Somali journalists have already reached that point, and those with the means have left. At least a dozen Somali journalists have joined an estimated 450,000 residents who have fled the seaside capital this year, including 90,000 who abandoned the city following intense fighting in the past week.

Sahal Abdulle, a reporter for the Reuters news agency, left two months ago.

He had been detained at least once by Ethiopian troops who held an AK-47 to his head. His house, where he spent hours gardening to distract himself from the sounds of mortars and bombs, had been searched by Somali government troops.

During the last weeks he was there, he said, he would often slow his pace as he walked the streets, to see if anyone behind him slowed down, too. If anyone did, he said, he would change his route.

Then in August, his friend Elmi was killed. Abdulle went to the funeral and was in the car with Sharmarke when a remotely detonated bomb exploded, throwing the car into the air.

Abdulle's throat was slashed by shrapnel, but he managed to escape. Shortly afterward, he left the country.

"I feel frustrated because this is a job that I love," he said by phone from Toronto, where he is living. "It feels like someone forced me at gunpoint -- and with a bomb, in my case -- to leave."

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