Getting the story in Somalia can be a deadly affair for journalists


The call came as I was leaving a mosque in the central business district of Nairobi, Kenya. It was my brother, Mohamed, and he had a grim message: al-Shabaab militants had bombed the Central Hotel in Mogadishu, killing at least 10 people, among them Abdishakur Mire, a close friend and former journalist who had gone into politics.

I had met Mire while working as a reporter on his Mogadishu-based newspaper Ileys. Three weeks earlier, he had invited me for a chat in the same hotel. Now it was a heap of rubble caked in blood, the latest testimony to the factional war that had racked my homeland for two decades.

Mire knew what it was like to be targeted. His encounter with terror groups was the inspiration of a book he wrote in 2013, titled Rise of Islamist Movements. The book’s runaway success brought him little joy. He had received endless threats from people who believed he was against Islam.

Mire had founded a newspaper in the semi-autonomous Puntland region that called out government officials for corruption. This, too, made him countless enemies. He once told me that if ever he were killed, it would be because of clan-related disputes, which in Somalia often turned violent.

In one of the world’s most dangerous cities, the Central Hotel was among the few places where Mire, like other Somali journalists and officials, felt safe. His heart always seemed to be in his former profession. As a journalist, activist and later a politician, Mire tried everything he could to improve Somalia. And he was killed for it.
We all lived under the fear that stalked Mire’s life. Though younger and less politically active, I had received numerous death threats and survived an armed attack. My work as a correspondent for Western media put me in the limelight.

A story I sent to the digital Wall Street Journal alerted the world to the death of al-Shabaab’s emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane, who had been wounded in a US airstrike in September 2014. In al-Shabaab’s eyes, reporting such news for Western news outlets was an act of betrayal. It was no less heinous than military espionage and the perpetrator had to be punished.

First, I received anonymous calls from people who threatened me with death. Terrified and confused, I sneaked out of the country and stayed for two weeks in neighbouring Kenya, hoping the risk would fade away. It was the most traumatic two weeks of my life. I was sick with fear, not knowing what would happen when I returned to Mogadishu.

The danger facing my young family, who were innocent but extremely vulnerable, compounded the problem. Then there was my job, which hung by a thread if I was out of station.

In late December, I returned to Mogadishu and resumed filing stories for the Wall Street Journal.

At midday on 25 January 2015, I was driving home from a local bank when I noticed a white Toyota Noah on my tail. From my modest safety training, I became attentive and carefully monitored it. Suddenly, shots rang out and I realised the men in the Noah, clad in the jungle green uniform of government security forces, were firing in my direction. One bullet hit my car, but I was unscathed.

Something told me not to go home; they could follow me there. I sought refuge in a suburban hotel. The next day, I reached out to my family, packed a small bag and headed for Mogadishu airport with a security escort. The flight to Nairobi was literally a godsend. I repeatedly thanked Allah as the plane soared over Somalia’s capital, a shooting survivor’s turbo-charged ticket to anonymity and safety.
My stay in Nairobi was ridden with fear and anxiety, a crippling terror of the invisible enemy who might have crossed the border. I missed my family and lost my job as a stringer. Away from the theatre of war, I was useless to my media clients. I wandered the streets of Nairobi begging for support from NGOs.

Back home, the situation became more worrisome. Armed men visited my home and threatened the family. Ten months after I flew out of Somalia, my family was forced to flee Mogadishu and join me in Nairobi.

Before they came, life was lonely and stressful. I kept thinking about my lovely wife and our seven children. On the streets, I constantly glanced over my shoulder and peered into unfamiliar faces, hoping to spot the enemy before they could pick me out. I was a refugee and a man on the run.

In February 2015, I registered for asylum in Kenya because that was the only way to remain in the country legally. After two years of screening interviews and a long wait for resettlement, my family’s hopes were dashed when the then new US president, Donald Trump, imposed a travel ban on 11 Muslim-majority nations, including Somalia. We could no longer enter the US.

Press freedom remains precarious in Somalia and journalists are targeted for exposing the truth. In 2019 alone, 81 journalists were physically assaulted and 53 arbitrarily arrested. At least eight have been killed over the past two years: five died in indiscriminate al-Shabaab attacks, two were killed by unidentified attackers, and one was shot dead by a police officer. Death threats and obstruction of access to information — all representing a vital constitutional right that citizens are meant to enjoy — are persistent.

Although the militant group is responsible for most attacks on journalists, the government also continues to order arbitrary arrests and suspensions based on perceived criticism. It blocks independent news websites and has introduced a law restricting media freedom.

My passion for journalism had flickered into life in a Mogadishu displacement camp in the early 1990s. Growing up in the squalor of a charity village, I witnessed extreme poverty, overcrowded accommodation, insecurity, lack of sanitation and poor access to water. I have experienced the hardships faced by marginalised communities, including women and disabled people, in aid camps.

It left me with the conviction that I had to be a voice for the voiceless. A willing convert to advocacy journalism, I believed that media that made a difference went beyond asking for soundbites and quotes. They listened to the people’s stories and understood their plight, enabling them to report with impact.

I had started off as a general reporter on a Mogadishu newspaper in 2003 and then switched to broadcast journalism. At different times, I worked as an editor and news producer at local radio stations. It still did not prepare me for the hectic life of a fully fledged reporter who wrote about dozen stories a month on a diverse of topics, from political drama and recurring drought to terrorism, human rights abuses and Somalia’s long-running civil conflict.

Somalia has been in turmoil for the past three decades. It has been scarred by every imaginary security blight, from clan warfare, Islamic militancy and maritime piracy, to terrorist groups that kill innocent people, including journalists and government officials, to assassinations and roadside bombs aimed at peace-keeping forces.

Oddly, there are no official regulations on what a journalist can or cannot report in Somalia. Media professionals are prey on all sides in the civil war. Some have paid for it with their lives.

They include my friend Mohamed Mohamud, who was popularly known as Tima’ade. He died at 26. A brave and outspoken professional, Mohamud had been covering military operations in Mogadishu. Gunmen shot him six times as he drove to work on the morning of 22 October 2013.

The year before, another journalist, Hassan Osman Abdi, was assassinated after he uncovered a graft scandal in the Mogadishu seaport.

This year one of two journalists killed was Said Yusuf Ali, a young reporter I had mentored and trained.

Puntland authorities jailed a colleague, Abdifatah Jama, in 2019 for interviewing a rebel leader.

After Mire’s arrest and trial, I visited the prison where he was being held and wrote stories exposing the appalling living conditions in the country’s overcrowded central prison of Bosaso. After the story ran in international media, armed policemen raided my home in Bosaso on the night of 28 August 2010.

I had slipped away just in time. A friend put me up in a safe house to continue working while waiting to be ferried to another city in central Puntland.

After eight days, I arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia, and began a new life. In 2018, I started mentoring young journalists and giving training on safety, ethical reporting and labour rights. Through this programme, I travelled across the regions of Somalia and witnessed the brutal violation of press freedom.

As attacks against the media mounted, mostly perpetrated by state agents, my friends and I formed the Somali Journalists Syndicate. This is an independent journalists’ union dedicated to defending the rights of journalists, providing legal defence assistance and advocating for access to information.

I took the decision to defend the rights of fellow journalists and advocate media freedom in a country that has never known free flow of information. This is not a simple task. Working as a journalist in Somalia is putting yourself in the hands of others and being a press-freedom defender is akin to suicide.

My colleagues and I took to the streets at least five times in April and May 2020 to protest against government harassment and the jailing of two journalists who wrote critical stories about the capital’s managers.

Somalis are traditionally oral people. They gather and talk at the slightest excuse. At the individual level, free speech is a means of social and political participation; it is the vehicle through which important issues are debated; the means by which people contribute to decisions that shape the community and the wider nation.

I will have contributed something meaningful by helping to protect and nurture free speech in a democratic Somalia. Free speech enables individuals to take part in politics and stand up to be counted, to be an active player in a democracy, not a passive spectator.

As for the idealistic belief in a privileged fourth estate, that is an illusion of the Western world. In Africa, journalism’s special mission does not shield us from political violence. Still, I want to make a difference, but doing so means risking my life and that of my family.