By Aggrey Mutambo
A new Somali media law meant to enforce professionalism and safeguard the country’s state secrets from ‘enemies’ has been met with wide-ranging criticism for ‘criminalising’ journalism.
Last week, Somalia’s President Mohamed Farmaajo assented to the Media Bill, an amendment from a controversial 2016 law which had been seen by players as retrogressive.
Farmaajo’s Spokesman Abdinur Mohamed declared “victory” for press freedom and suggested the new law will enforce some sort of patriotism among journalists, professionalise the industry as well as weed out quacks working for foreign entities.
“As we all know, we have witnessed that due to lack of media regulation, we have encountered instances in the past where the security and sovereignty of our nation was threatened by biased coverage and this includes the coverage of the maritime dispute involving Somalia and Kenya,” he said on August 26.
He was referring to a case in which Mogadishu sued Nairobi at the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands. But he did not clarify his assertions of bias.
The case will be heard early next year.
The Media Law, in the meantime, will enable journalists to report on public offices without fear of reprisals, Mohamed said, as long as the coverage is “rightful.”
Abuse of office
“The Media Law also offers members of the fourth estate protection against masters of impunity and allows them the ability to hold our public officers accountable especially on issues related to abuse of office,” he said.
Besides creating a government communication centre to coordinate public information sharing, the new law also creates a public broadcaster, different from state broadcasters, which will be seen as editorially independent and fair to all, especially during political campaigns.
But media lobbies in Somalia and outside the country are pushing against clauses that could cancel all existing licences for private media and journalists for a new type of accreditation seen as punitive. Lobbies argue that there is no guarantee of successful re-registration given accrediting agencies are yet to be reset up, and those seen as critical may be denied registration.
Then there is a clause about revealing sources.
“The safety and privacy of journalists will be at stake if the new law continues to take effect the way it is now,” Hassan Ali Gesey, the director radio and Dalsan TV, private stations in Mogadishu, told the Nation.
Mr Gesey, who chairs an association of about 30 independent media houses, SIMHA, said the government ignored their proposals on the sanctity of sources of journalists.
“The law is a good start. But we need to immediately review articles 14, 16 and 29, on registration of media houses, revealing of sources and privacy. We are afraid of the possible influence of the Ministry [of information] in the registration. We publicly highlighted these before,” Mr Gesey said on Sunday.
The law makes it illegal for any reporter or media house to publish any information that runs counter to the interests of the country, security, economic, political or societal set up, even if under threats from the source of the information.
While this may target militant groups like Al-Shabaab who routinely force some journalists to report on their propaganda, journalists in Somalia are wary of being forced to reveal their sources or be held responsible for publishing confidential information.
Besides, it doesn’t say which “competent authorities” journalists can turn to in case they feel aggrieved by the penalties although it creates a media council to accredit and hear cases against journalists.
Omar Faruk Osman, the secretary-general of the National Union of Somali Journalists (Nusoj) said the new law falls below standards set at the African Union and the UN.
“We have constantly urged the federal government, including the president of the republic, to align the amended media law with African and international instruments and principles on freedom of expression that Somalia is a signatory to so that the country acquires progressive and democratic laws benefitting all Somalis.
“Our demand for real media and policy reform remains alive,” he said, calling on Farmaajo to issue a moratorium against arrest of journalists.
Somalia is one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.
According to Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF), about 50 journalists have been killed in Somalia in the past decade, most of them by militants, although some disappeared at the hands of authorities.
The RSF, which produces an index on press freedom every year, says Somalia is at position 163 out of 180 countries polled in 2020.
“The amended media law contains some encouraging articles but they are undermined by the criminalisation of journalistic acts, which continues to the part of the law despite our recommendations, and it does not decree a moratorium on arrests of journalists,” RSF Editor-in-Chief Pauline Adès-Mével said in a statement.
“Somalia is still, and will continue to be, one of the continent’s most repressive countries as regards to arrests of journalists. We call on the federal authorities to go further with media law reform in order to enable Somali journalists to work freely and without constraints… “
As the country heads to elections, lobbies fear the Media Law could be an exclusive tool for state machinery to whip reporters to their tune as it restricts who can participate.
The Federal of Somali Journalists, another welfare lobby, said there is an urgent need to remove “onerous restrictions” while the International Federal of Journalists (IFJ) called on authorities to admit views from all stakeholders.
“In its current form, the law creates an environment of insecurity and oppression for journalistic activity in Somalia,” said IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger in a statement.