On World Press Freedom Day, a Somali reporter offers a first person account of covering a dangerous beat.
By: Hamza Mohamed
Somalilandsun – After the death of many of our colleagues we in the media industry here in Somalia have developed a unique way of greeting each other.
“You are still a live?” One will ask with a smile.
“Dead people don’t walk or talk,” the other will respond with laughter. Behind the smiles and laughter are serious safety worries.
Meeting or bumping into fellow journalists is becoming a luxury. Because of the alarming number of targeted assassinations against journalists many of us are choosing not to gather in groups to socialise or stray far from their work place – even for work. Every chance we meet could be our last one.
Every journalist here knows a colleague who has been killed. It is also not rare to see journalists who’ve survived attempts on their lives.
Somalia is one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism. So far this year four journalists have been killed. Last year, 18 were killed. This week two journalists were arrested and later released without charges or apology.
As we leave our homes or what has lately become our hideouts in the morning our sole aim is to try to report the day’s events and avoid becoming the headline story of the day.
This may sound simple but in Somalia where it’s increasingly becoming difficult to tell the difference between a friend and an enemy it is a daunting task. It’s impossible to prepare to protect yourself against an enemy that you don’t know you have or even exists.
We try to make friends and when that’s not possible we try to avoid making enemies. If you can make friends and also be friends with your friend’s enemies you may last longer here. Trouble has a way of finding us. Some of us have ended up in jail even without publishing or airing a report.
To survive as a journalist in Somalia you’ve to live in a state of paranoia constantly assessing and reassessing your surroundings.
We don’t return home in the evening using the same route we took in the morning to get to work unless all other roads in the city are closed. We also don’t return home the exact time every evening. All routines are avoided – even fetching children from school.
Depending on who your employer is and the last story you worked on, our morning usually starts with phone calls to next-door neighbours who also double up as our lookouts before leaving the house.
We change houses many times a year – I don’t know where my closest colleagues live. I will be surprised if they said they knew where I live.
It is common for journalists here to rent more than one house at any given time. I’m currently paying rent at more than one place. Some TV and radio stations have lost more journalists than others and those who work at these stations usually wait for the company vehicle and security guards to come pick them up to go to work.
The few who can afford to buy second hand cars usually jump into their tinted vehicles and speed off to work. Tinted windows are a must as they help lower the profile of the occupant. But most journalists here don’t earn enough to afford their own car. They’ve to brave the streets and take public transport to get to work. Taking public transport vehicles makes you a sitting duck. Many of us have been killed trying to get to the office.
With fragile peace returning in the capital, the conflict has also changed – from government soldiers and Islamists fighting door-to-door to roadside bombs and suicide attacks. This change has led to a reduction in civilian casualties.
But that change in fortune hasn’t reached us yet. Death still lurks in the air for us journalists.
In Mogadishu our colleagues and contacts are here one minute and gone the next. You are left to pick up the pieces and the psychological burden.
In the past month, three people who I’ve gotten to know have been killed; two were prominent lawyers who tirelessly defended a colleague arrested for interviewing a woman who alleged government soldiers raped her.
I spoke to them a week before they were killed. After finishing interviewing them the last thing they told me was to stay out of harm’s way. They were killed inside the courthouse after al-Shabab gunmen carried out a daring daylight attack on the courtroom.
The third person was Mohamed Ibrahim Rage, a journalist with the state-own Radio Mogadishu and SNTV. He was shot six times in front of his house while playing with his four-year-old daughter. Just over a month ago a group of us, including Mohamed, were invited by a local district commissioner to join a night patrol. But because it was past his self-imposed 5PM curfew he didn’t turn up. His wife is nine months pregnant.
We spend more time at the scenes of car bombs and suicide attacks than any other professional group. Many times we get to the scene even before the emergency services arrive. Emotions are raw and high, and arriving too soon at the scene has cost some of us their lives or limps. Second explosions are a reality.
Security officials usually treat us with open contempt and it is common for them to fire over our heads to get our attention or to rough us up.
A few months ago, I was arrested at the scene of an explosion because the commander in charge of the scene didn’t recognise my face. This happened despite showing my press cards and passport and pleas from fellow journalists at the scene.
At press briefings we are expected to listen and nod then disperse without asking questions. Journalism is one of the least respected jobs in Somalia.
For safety reasons we usually don’t work at night and most of us have self-imposed curfews. Due to the poor safety situation and pressure from family and friends increasing numbers of reporter are choosing to keep guns at home and carry them to work for protection.
We have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for telling the Somali story. We remain in this profession because we know even the darkest night is followed by daylight. Soon peace will prevail in Somalia.
As the world marks World Press Freedom Day, we in Somalia are hoping for a day when no life is lost.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on twitter: @Hamza_Africa