Working as a journalist in Somalia is incredibly dangerous but vital for the future of its people according to Mohamed Odowa, who has first-hand experience of how the conflict dividing the country has affected media freedom and journalism.
"I am a journalist based in Mogadishu, with over nine years of experience in the mass media, and I currently work as a freelance writer for various international media outlets, including the German Press Agency (DPA), INSP, Somalia Report and Africa news website.
Throughout my years of working as a journalist here, I have seen such levels of violence and threats against members of my profession that I had to leave the country and have only recently decided to return.
I used to work for HornAfrik Radio and TV, an independent station in Mogadishu which was co-founded by Ali Iman Sharmaarke and where another journalist, Mahad Ahmed Elmi also worked. The station was outspoken about the behaviour of both the government and the Islamic opposition, and as a result became a target for lootings and other attacks.
Tragically, both Sharmarke and Elmi were murdered in 2007, and director Said Tahlil Ahmed was also slaughtered in Bakara Market in 2009.
These three men were my colleagues and they were murdered in cold blood. After being shot at close range, Elmi bled to death outside our offices and our boss Sharmarke was killed by a roadside bomb on the outskirts of the city on the way back from his funeral.
Said Ahmed was attacked by three masked gunmen on February 4 2009, after being summoned to a meeting with Al Shabaab members. In reality, the meeting was a ruse, and a part of their plan to murder the director for his outspoken weekly news programme. As he walked to the venue, he was shot twice in the back, before one of the attackers hit him with two bullets in the head from point blank range.
These were tragic events, and all of these killings were attacks which really shook me and my fellow journalists in Somalia. These were fine journalists reporting on the atrocities which were commonplace in our country, and they paid for their honesty and integrity with their lives.
They were killed by suspected Al Shabaab members, and while all this was happening I had received a number of threats against my life just for the reports I was producing. Similarly, most of these threats were from the Al Shabaab group.
The constant threat of violence and these attacks were just some of the horrific events I witnessed during my time working in Somalia, and they eventually led to me deciding that I had to leave the country. So in August 2009 I decided to flee my home and seek refuge in Uganda.
My time in Uganda was very difficult, as I felt that I had lost everything, including my identity and my profession. Eventually this became too much to handle and I decided to return to Somalia and continue my work as a journalist.
Brutal Tug of War
Being a journalist in Somalia is actually somewhat like being a prisoner. It really is a matter of life and death as journalists here in Mogadishu and other parts of the country are targeted by warring divisions who are completely intolerant of free speech.
It is an incredibly difficult place to work and you never know from where your enemies could emerge. Reporters in the country are suffering in the middle of a brutal tug-of-war between warring factions as neither side want to see reports of their losses published.
I engage with as many people and members of different groups as possible on a daily basis, although it is challenging to work when the political sectors here are so opposed to the operation of a free media.
I do not experience the safety provided to foreign journalists who often have security escorts when they come to stay in Mogadishu for short periods of time.
For me, I have my notebook, laptop and my pen and these are the real weapons in my armoury. I have no idea where my enemy lies and it is difficult to find measures and means to avoid the associated dangers, risks and threats of daily life.
However, I have had to accept the fact that I'm going to die one day and there isn't anything else I can do to prevent it.
World must address Somali crises
I am not sure how the situation can be improved in the future, except for the establishment of a lasting peace in Somalia.
If Somali people see a peaceful situation and a safe environment for working, then I think the threat of assassinations will be significantly reduced.
This is going to require the attention and the efforts of the international community, as they need to work together to address the political crisis in the country and ensure that Somali political leaders are held to account.
As for now, I believe that as journalists, there is no alternative but for us to continue working in this deadly environment to ensure that the murders of our people are not forgotten or ignored, but are brought to the world’s attention in an effort to obtain justice.
I believe that an independent media is essential for a society with democratic aspirations, and we will never achieve a true democracy in Somalia without a free media. The media should be the eyes and ears of our community, and it is very important that we can provide information to our people.
Kidnap, torture, assassinations and death threats
The threats continue, and the latest call that I received came from the Elasha Biyaha area of the capital, which is a well known stronghold for Al Shabaab. The caller refused to provide his name, but told me that if I wrote anything about Al Shabaab then I would be killed within days. He added that he and his colleagues were fully aware of where I was based, and that they could approach and kill me at any given time.
He accused me of passing sensitive information about the group’s activities to Western government agencies. The caller said: “In Islam there is no an independent media right now that can be said to be unbiased on the war between the Muslims and infidels, so from now on stop reporting on the issues about Al Shabaab if you want to survive.”
Kidnap, torture, assassinations and death threats are very much a part of the journalists’ lives here in Somalia.
My colleagues suffer similar threats on a daily basis, especially those who are working for international media organisations, who are often regarded as western spies by Al Shabaab.
Attacks on representatives of independent media outlets are also increasing regularly.
Improvements will require collaboration and professionalism.
The problems are not limited to the terrorist groups – as members of the media we need to be more responsible as a group. Poor journalism has increased the anti-media sentiments in the country, but by passing new laws which relate to defamation and the media, we can prevent this becoming more of an issue. If the government could work with international press freedom groups to this end, then it would be a major step for the media in Somalia.
Media houses must realise that by hiring unprofessional journalists and not following ethical practices, they place all journalists here in danger.
I hope that we will see journalists throughout Somalia provided with access to free information, free from the threats of murder and violence and left to present the truth of what is happening in Somalia to the rest of the world.
Finally, I urge my colleagues to continue to investigate and search for the truth of what is happening in our country, but not at the expense of standards of professionalism and ethics, which must be maintained to help create a free and safe media in Somalia"
As told to Peter Townson.