By: Mohamed Irbad
Somalis are a people who celebrate, and cultivate their deep-rooted oral traditions, important for an age when communication over long distances took place through the art of creating, memorizing and disseminating poetry. Radio and the written word through with the newly developed tools of mass media changed all that, but the fundamental importance of transmitting information remained. I am reminded of an important Somali proverb, “War helaa, talo hela” which roughly translates into, “he who gets information, gets advice.”
For that information to be impactful, however, it’s integrity depends on the freedom of the people in question to describe what they see, which is why the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Provisional Federal Constitution of Somalia, all, in their respective provisions, encourage freedom of expression and opinion.
Article 16 of the Somalia provisional constitution particularly assures freedom of association. Other related articles – 20, 21 and 23 – also guarantee freedom of assembly, demonstration, protest and petition, freedom of movement and residence.
Media censorship in Somalia goes back to the Italian colonial period in the country’s south, as the Italian fascist regime carefully monitored and suppressed dissenting voices against their presence in Somalia. Following independence and the brief democratic interlude between 1960-1969, the press in Somalia found ample space to carry out its duty.
In October 1969, President Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke was assassinated. There was a sense of confusion across the country. A few days later, Major General Mohamed Siad Barre ordered his forces to circle the parliament and overtake Radio Mogadishu and the Ministry of Information. The ‘democratic’ government was overthrown. The days of free press, demonstrations and elections were over. Barre announced a socialist revolution and established a 25-member Supreme Revolutionary Council to run the country. Media, Civil society and religious leaders were threatened to be arrested and tortured if they speak against the revolution.
From 1969 to 1991, there were close to five newspapers in the country; three of them were owned by the government, one by the ruling party and the other one was privately-owned. Radio Mogadishu, which was established in 1951, was also a government-run public broadcast radio station operating in the country, though it was closed after the civil war broke out in the early 1990s.
It was later opened in the early 2000s by the Transitional National Government. Unlike its predecessor, who did not allow any dissent or protests, the TFGs were quite good in giving the media the space they deserve. Despite some petty cases, the media enjoyed total freedom under Presidents Abdullahi Yussuf and Sheikh Sharif.
As of today, the old bugbear of a truly free press holding a government to account seems to be bothering the incumbent administration too as it shows its sensitivity to criticism by stifling press freedom.
YOU’RE EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US
The election of President Farmajo on February 8, 2017, was a rare opportunity of historic proportion. Virtually overnight, he led a suddenly, unified and purposeful citizenry that was prepared—even eager—to set aside petty political differences, which had plagued the country for the past two decades or so. Popular at first, his election generated a huge momentum which must be maintained by giving space to the media, civil society and diverse political voices.
Sadly, this is not happening.
It is an open secret that the current administration pays some of the media with the aim of not holding them accountable or denying the opposition access to platforms so that they can’t criticize and put the government in a check. To make things worse, the media have been made an avenue for political influence whereby the government uses its power to undermine the media.
Many liberal Somali voices have opposed the silencing of the media by the government: a government’s given too much power to control information is prone to abuse that power. A free press is vital for modern democracy and it should be encouraged and nurtured.
UN-INFORMED VS MIS-INFORMED PUBLIC
The media should inform the public about all the happenings relevant to them, in a lucid and comprehensive manner, giving all essential details and important speculations, without bias.
So, what happens if the media, civil society and the political groups are not given space or suppressed? It’s obvious that the public will be completely misguided with the sort of false information that will likely cause mistrust and public discontent in the long-term. An executive branch with too much power, such as ruling by decree and circumventing other institutions, is a sure path to authoritarian relapse.
Khadar Mohamud Hared, a Somali journalist based in Nairobi said that “Media personals, iconoclastic, thinkers, politicians and non-conformists who dare to challenge this administration are invariably branded as subversive, anarchist and dissidents”.
We have seen repeatedly that people expect a lot from their leaders when they elect them. They want life to get better and hold their government accountable. This is one of the main reasons that cause a good deal of instability in new fragile states that are recovering from post-conflict situations.
FAKE NEWS & THE RAISE OF ANTI-THOUGHTS
Since the advent of the internet, it has brought its own pros and cons. Fake news and the rise of misinformation have been alarming.
In Somalia, the youth are the majority of those who use the internet. Fake news, often disseminated on these platforms, has been a serious problem since 2016. Hundreds of Facebook and Twitter pages are created sharing unverified information to the public.
“It’s worrying to see that journalists feel unprotected and due to that they’re compromising on their watchdog role on government mistakes, corruption and excesses” said by Hared.
Fake news stories about Somalia’s progress, the government power and its ability to crack down the opposition groups and the political dissidents, and revival of lost Somali glory are being shared widely without any attempt of fact-checking. In sharing these messages, people feel like they are contributing to nation-building. The idea of nation-building is trumping the truth when it comes to sharing stories on social media in Somalia.
For instance, on the 10th of March, 2019, three local correspondents sent similar reports from Kismayo which were aired on three Somali TV channels. It was very unfortunate that all of them sticked to the same script- in other words, they fed the public with more or less paid messages. This is a clear violation of one of the main media principles which are to inform and enlighten the public.
This reminds me of a similar case where the largest owner of local television stations across the United States- Sinclair Group- was under fire for reportedly forcing anchors to take part in a promotional videos accusing national media outlets of sharing “fake news” stories. This has even forced Donald Trump to come out in the open and defend them– a move that raised even more suspicions and literally confirmed the credibility of the allegation.
Even though fake news seems innocuous, it still matters because not only does it erode trust in the media, it also divides communities and can even endanger lives through the fueling of hate speech, which leads to violence, or the spread of false information about individuals who are not part of the government or media personnel who are critical to the government. The constitution of the country has given the people the right to question their leaders and held them accountable.
Once the citizenry acquiesces to a new power, believing that it does not affect them, or the oppression that is being subjected to the political dissidents is not relevant to them, it then becomes institutionalized and legitimized and objection will become impossible. The weaker antagonists will not also get the opportunity to compete with the more politically powerful side in the asymmetrical environment.
As Mr Glenn Greenwald noted in his book “No Place to Hide”: “You must refrain from provoking the authority that wields warrant arrest power if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing. This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being “left alone” is to remain quiet, unthreatening, and compliant.”
The same scenario is being used by the current government of Somalia to clamp-down any dissident who has a different idea than the government. It seems opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of the current administration. It’s pure anti-thought, anti-intellect, and anti-freedom of speech. This is an alarming trend, to say the least.
If you have a contrary perspective than the “muxaafid-pro-government”, you are most likely to be labelled as “qaran-dumis” – someone against the “existence of the government”. Some journalists, politicians, and activists have already faced instances of arrest, accusations of treason, and violent threats from hardliner groups who are ready to counter-attack online critics against the government.
Several cases where media personnel were mishandled have received a huge rage among the Somali people. The latest scenario being journalists who were tortured and treated badly by some police officers. Thanks to Villa Somalia’s Director of Communications, Abdinur Mohamed, who came out in the open, apologized unconditionally and followed up the case with the relevant authorities. This is a very promising and positive step. Taking responsibility for misdoings and commitment to media welfare is a constitutional duty upon the government.
The way forward
Fairly enough, I think the government should encourage a diverse, independent private broadcasting sector. They should unconditionally give enough space to the dissidents, civil society and activists. Undoubtedly, a young democracy like Somalia’s requires a diversity of ideas, broad political space, tolerance to diversity and a free press that is not at the risk of subjugation and harassment.
The litmus test for any democratic government is how it’s tolerant of its political dissidents.