AFEX Petitions Somaliland on Press Freedom Crackdown

Felicia Anthonio, AFEX Cordinator
Felicia Anthonio, AFEX Cordinator

The African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) on June 6, 2018 petitioned President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland over incessant attacks on journalists, media organizations and individuals in the country and urged his government to uphold the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly rights of journalists, activists and individuals.

AFEX, writing on behalf of 15 press freedom and human rights organizations that work to promote freedom of expression and media development in Africa, expressed deep concern about the increased reports of attacks on journalists, media organizations and individuals in Somaliland within the past months. The organisations criticized the increasing attacks and harassment of journalists and media organisations which represented a crackdown on their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly.

The petition outlined some of the arrests and attacks on journalists in Somaliland including the most recent, the arrest on June 4, 2018 of Mukhtar Abdi Jama, a journalist working with Somnews TV in Las Anod district, Sool Region on the orders of the regional governor of Somaliland, Abdi Khayre Dirir. Although no official reason was given for Jama’s arrest, investigations showed that his incarceration was as a result of the airing of a press conference held by local leaders in the Taleh district about the conflict in Tukaraq, a disputed area between Puntland and Somaliland.

AFEX also mentioned the banning by the Ministry of Information and Public Awareness on May 29, 2018 of two privately owned stations, SBS TV and SOM News TV in the Sool Region for covering the conflict between Puntland and Somaliland. Authorities were said to have accused the two stations of promoting political campaign against Somaliland and breaching journalistic ethics.

AFEX also cited other incidents of state attacks on the freedom of expression and assembly rights of journalists and activists as follows:

  • A day before the closure of the stations, a journalist working with SBS TV, Mohamed Ahmed Jama Bidhanshe was arrested by security forces. Another reporter, Abdirahman Keyse Tungub, from Bulsho TV covering similar protests was previously arrested on May 27, 2018 by police in the same town (Las Anod). The two journalists were covering territorial dispute between Somalialnd and Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in north-eastern Somalia. Both Bidhanshe and Tungub were however released on May 31, 2018 without any charges.
  • Somaliland police in a related development arrested over 40 protesters during demonstrations in Las Anod. The protesters were demanding the reunification of Somaliland with the Federal government based in Mogadishu. Sadly, according to media reports, Abdirisak Mohamed Farah, police commander for Somaliland’s Sool Region justified the arrests and further threatened to arrest more persons. “We arrested 47 demonstrators including women and youth who were misled,” Farah said at a news conference in Las Anod. “There are two reporters in jail for creating chaos. We are looking for others and shall arrest them,” he added. AFEX noted that the police commander’s remarks were a clear attempt by authorities to repress freedom of expression rights of citizens.
  • Four journalists who had been living and working in Las Anod have fled to Garowe city, capital of Puntland, after they were threatened by Somaliland authorities for “fomenting violence” and “misinforming the public”.
  • On May 14, 2018 police upon the orders of the regional governor of Sool, Abdi Hayre Dirir, arrested freelance journalist, Adam Jama Oogle aka Habeb following comments he made on Facebook in which he called for the reunification of Somaliland and Somalia. He was released after being held for over a week without charge.
  • In two separate incidents that happened in April 2018, a provincial court in Hargeisa sentenced Naima Ahmed, an activist and poet and Mohamed Kayse, a civilian to three years and 18 months in jail respectively for Facebook comments deemed libelous by the authorities. The prosecutions were carried out under Somalia’s very old penal code. Naima Ahmed was however granted presidential pardon and released on May 7, 2018 after her family petitioned the President.

The petition from AFEX stated that these attacks have serious repercussions on the enjoyment of free speech as this could force journalists and individuals into self-censorship to avoid being harassed. It noted with satisfaction that some of those who had been arrested were freed but nevertheless found it worrying that citizens were at risk of being sentenced to jail for exercising their fundamental rights to free expression and assembly which is enshrined in the Somaliland’s constitution as well as African and international human rights frameworks. It expressly stated that no one should be behind bars for exercising their rights and called on the office of the President to reopen SBS TV and SOM News TV stations’ – the closure of which and arbitrary arrest of journalists represents an affront to free expression and will deprive citizens of their fundamental rights to access information.

AFEX expressed its willingness to assist the President of Somaliland in ensuring an improved press freedom environment as well as its confidence in the office of the President to take note of the concerns and recommendations expressed towards improving the freedom of expression and human right environment both online and offline in Somaliland.

The institutions represented under AFEX are  Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) , Uganda; Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS)South Sudan; Center for Media Studies & Peace Building (CEMESP) , Liberia; Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) , South Africa; Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda);, Somalia; and Institute for Media and Society, Nigeria.

The others are International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Belgium; International Press Centre (IPC)Nigeria; Journaliste en danger (JED), Democratic Republic of Congo; Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Ghana; Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Nigeria; Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Zimbabwe; National Union of Somali Journalists, Somalia; and West African Journalists Association (WAJA), Senegal.