Challenges, potential for journalism in Somalia and Africa: A conversation with Somali journalists

The beauty of Mogadishu and Somalia, in general, comes up first in our initial conversation with Omar Farouk Osman and his colleague Nina Hassan Abdi, who are long-practicing journalists from Somalia.

In order to break the ice, I talk about my experience covering security in that country, and we both laugh when he calls me an embedded journalist. That’s because while I have been embedded with a military entourage covering peace enforcement by African Union troops inside Somalia, he has been honing his craft in that country since 1998, he tells me.

“I have seen the practice of journalism change over time in my country. When I started, there was a huge challenge of security, but now we face even more difficulties from the social media platforms,” he tells me.

And in a quick response, I also chime in, “It’s a huge challenge out here as well.”

But what we both note is the huge potential and target audience that social media presents for mainstream journalists across Africa and not only in the region.

For the moment, platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have become a huge platform for mainstream media in Kenya and Somalia for media managers and practitioners to churn out their content to targeted audiences who use those platforms on a large scale away from traditional radio, television, or print media.

“Both broadcast and print media are challenged by social media back home,” Omar said and adds that, “I know some radio stations who have now completely forgotten about updating their websites on the news and what’s happening. That is gone. What is now happening in Somalia is media houses, radio stations using social media, for their advantage. People don’t see how we can address this because it’s easier for journalists to update social media accounts so that they feed the public even before they reach the newsroom,” stated the chairperson of the Somali journalists union.

But even with the challenges posed by social media which he believes need to be accommodated by the traditional media platforms but according to journalistic ethics, the issue of the danger facing Somali journalists is one that is very worrying for him.

He believes without legislation in place to ensure the right to access information is guaranteed in the law, many will still continue to be arrested and detained without proper judicial procedures being undertaken.

“Journalists are arrested in Somalia, but there is something that has become infamous, the journalist is convicted before even being charged. And what is being used is a penal code of Somalia which is very, very old, what was enacted into law in 1972,” said Omar.

Somalia has no media council set up in its laws and only has a national union of journalists with just about 1200 registered practitioners working in its various regions. The number of female journalists in the country, though significantly higher in the 2023 NUSOJ database, is still lower than in many other parts of the world.

Within the 9 major television networks, the Somali Journalists union says that the number of women in leadership in those newsrooms is little to none. Female journalists are also facing discriminatory practices and abuses on the field of duty, and not much has been achieved to challenge the status quo.

The death of Somali-Canadian Hodhan Ali in a terror attack in Kismayo together with her husband is seen as the ultimate price many journalists inside Somalia face in their line of work, and according to union officials, many more deaths have been reported in the years before and after that attack.

“It is really a miracle for someone to be a journalist in Somalia in the first place, but then also after becoming a journalist but also becoming an activist and standing up for media freedom in the face of deadly violence, endless hostilities, and organized crime that is particularly targeting media professionals,” says Omar.

In the last 15 years, around 80 journalists have been reported killed in Somalia, with many being incarcerated for their duties by different administrations.

“We are telling our government to break the cycle of impunity for crimes committed against journalists because these crimes are not happening by accident. They are organized and premeditated and exclusively choreographed to attack journalists. We are saying that the office of the special prosecutor to look at crimes against journalists should be empowered to conduct its duty independently and bring the perpetrators before the law,” noted Omar.

In the region, media practitioners have expressed concerns about governments clamping down on media freedoms, like access to information, and also banning live broadcasts in certain circumstances.

Roselyne Oballa, who has served at the media council and is currently a political editor at the Nation Media Group, says that the media platform needs to be allowed to do its duties without fear of reprisals.

“In the 2022 election period, journalists were threatened and termed as having taken sides, and we recently saw journalists being beaten and attacked in a political demonstration. This reverses the gains Kenya has made since the dark era,” she noted.

Churchill Otieno, the chairperson of the East African Editors Guild, agrees and believes that without a free press, audiences who are owed the truth will continue to suffer and that governments need to come to a consensus with media practitioners on how best to enable a platform for the craft to continue to thrive without intimidation.

The media landscape is also facing job cuts, restructuring, and financial challenges that have seen a huge pool of seasoned scribes leave the craft. “This is worrying because there will be a huge gap between the younger generation of journalists and the old folk who have left, and this will impact largely on institutional memory,” said Oballa.

For Osman and his colleagues, the future is bright for journalism in that country.


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