Somalia: the most deadly country in Africa for the media

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The Independent Online

Living amid the anarchy of Mogadishu, journalist Mahad Elmi was well used to danger. Many of those he reported on critically were men of violence. There had been death threats, beatings and attempts on his life.

Now Elmi has paid the ultimate price for his steadfast refusal to be intimidated by the warlords and terrorists of Somalia. Two weeks ago he was shot down by two gunmen as he went to work at the HornAfrik radio station. There followed a second death, that of Ali Iman Sharmarke, co-owner of the network, who was killed by a remote controlled landmine, as he was travelling back in a car from Elmi's funeral.

The killings of two of Somalia's most prominent journalists came not while the country was being controlled by the Islamist militias – charged by the Americans as allies of al-Qa'ida – but rather since "democratic rule" has been allegedly restored with the installation of the Transitional Federal Government, backed by the West and neighbouring Ethiopia, an ally of the US and UK in the War on Terror.

HornAfrik has prided itself on its fierce independence and impartiality in attempting to expose those who had put the country through decades of mayhem. The station, and Elmi in particular, had been one of the first ports of call by foreign journalists, myself included, who valued the insight they could provide in trying to piece together what exactly was going on behind the mayhem.

Only a few months ago Elmi had a warlord and an Islamist militia leader as guests in a regular morning show. While fighting against each other, each of the men claimed to be protecting the people. Elmi was not impressed. "The only people getting killed are innocent civilians, the people you claim to be saving," he said. "Are either of you prepared to take responsibility for that? For what you are doing to this city? To the people?" The rival commanders were outraged and ran off shouting insults and threats. In the cafés and bazaars of Mogadishu, however, people listening to their transistor radios cheered and burst into clapping at the audacity of the reporter.

It is unclear exactly who ordered the executions of Elmi and Sharmarke. Two men have been arrested by the government, but there is confusion over their identities and affiliations.

In his address at Elmi's funeral Sharmarke had said "Those who did this want to silence our voices in order to commit their crimes." Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, co-owner of the station and a fellow Somali-Canadian, believes there is a drive to shut down the station by terror. "Everyone knows I would have been in the car for the funeral," he says. "We have enemies on all sides. They have one common agenda, to make sure that no stable institutions are created in Somalia".

The organisation Reporters Without Borders says that Somalia is now the most deadly country in Africa for the media. Six other local reporters have been killed this year, although the others were not so well known.

It has also been a dangerous place for the foreign media. In February 2005 Kate Peyton, a BBC producer, was shot and killed in front of her hotel. Last year, after covering the then victory of the Islamist militias in Mogadishu, I met Martin Adler, a renowned cameraman, in Nairobi as he was about to go into Somalia. We discussed the security situation and the risks involved. A week later Martin was killed while filming a demonstration. A gunman had approached him through the crowd and shot him through the chest.

While the risks taken by foreign journalists are during relatively short visits, the great resilience and courage of HornAfrik's staff lay in continuing to stay and work in the highly dangerous environment under repeated threats and constant violence. The station was shelled in April during an offensive by Ethiopian forces propping up the Transitional Government against Islamist fighters. The staff carried on reporting from adjoining buildings and the streets as people fled the city.

As well scathing attacks on home-grown men of violence, HornAfrik have also been critical of foreign interference with a variety of countries and interest groups backing the different warring sides.

The most powerful of these players is the United States. Fourteen years after it suffered a humiliating military reversal, the events which inspired the film Black Hawk Down, the Americans are back. The 2,000 strong Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) has been set up by Washington in neighbouring Djibouti to fight this new front in the War on Terror. It has been involved in a long covert war against Somalia's Islamists and American aircraft have carried out bombings targeting alleged al-Qa'ida targets. US special forces troops were on the ground alongside the Ethiopians.

Publicly US government representatives have condemned the murders of Elmi and Sharmarke. Officials insist that these and other attacks are the work of jihadists. But the US-sponsored Somali transitional government has hardly been a champion of freedom of the press. One HornAfrik reporter was arrested and three others from Radio Shabelle assaulted by soldiers.

General Nuur Mohammed Mohamud, deputy chief of the government's national security department, recently laid down a set of rules for the local media. Among the dictats were: "You cannot report about the Somali government and Ethiopian military operations because they are top secret. You cannot report about the civilian population fleeing the city under any circumstances or the remnants of the Islamic Courts Union. As there is an emergency state in place, there is no so called freedom of expressions. The government will nominate editors for radio stations and you must co-operate with them".

Mahad Elmi urged his fellow journalists to ignore "this silliness". There had been intimidation by the Islamists as well and the policy, as then, he said, was not to back down. Elmi had talked about that intimidation during our meeting in Mogadishu. He had interviewed commander Aden Hashi Ayro, who is said to have trained at a jihadist camp in Afghanistan and is suspected of bombings and assassinations in Somalia, and did not like the subsequent broadcast.

So were there a lot of threats? "No, no phone calls at all," Mahad Elmi remembered. "But I was told he was very angry. Then a few days later they threw a couple of grenades into the building. Luckily no one was hurt badly, although some equipment got damaged. We patched things up and carried on. This is what we have to do, this is reporting Somalia, but we know they will keep on trying to stop us."