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Unsatisfactory efforts to address impunity for crimes against journalists in Somalia

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This year, the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) joins the rest of the world in recognising the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, with particular focus on prosecutorial services. This year’s theme raises questions around progress and challenges related to investigating and prosecuting violence and threats towards journalists. 

Across Somalia, there is a systemic failure in investigations, prosecutions and the provision of remedy for crimes committed against journalists. This means impunity prevails. The unprecedented speed with which journalists are arrested and brought to trial (despite satisfactory evidence) is replaced by inertia and red tape once journalists begin seeking justice for being victims of crime. 

This year’s focus on prosecutorial processes aligns well with efforts by NUSOJ. The union has not only been advocating for safety and protection for journalists and an end to impunity but in 2020 took decisive action by filing a successful court application at Banadir (Mogadishu) Regional Court to demand justice for victim journalists. In addition to receiving a positive ruling, NUSOJ also demanded that the Attorney General investigate the case, paving the way for the strategic national decision to appoint the first ever Special Prosecutor for crimes committed against journalists.

Somalia is still unable to shake the perception of being the most dangerous place to be a journalist in Africa. And unfortunately, with sound reason. Since 2010, in the line of duty, 58 journalists have been killed with 78severely wounded and 380 arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted. Between 2012 and 2016, the federal government of that day and the federal member states used laws which allowed them to authorise the withdrawal of criminal cases pending in the courts, including for serious crimes such as murder. 

While the number of journalists killed in Somalia has reduced in the past four years, there has nevertheless been a steady and incessant stream of arbitrary arrests across the country. There is abundant evidence to indicate that the murders of journalists are well planned, politically-motivated and, in most cases, meant to incite an indefinite form of censorship and self-censorship. While Al-Shabaab is responsible for some of these crimes, there are other forces at work trying to get journalists to pay the ultimate price for their work.

NUSOJ’s research reveals that officials and security forces under the command of the Federal Government and Federal Member States stand accused of carrying out gross and systematic human rights violations against journalists. They have also been blamed for their proven failures in upholding the right of victims to normative justice.

These incidents occur within a broader culture and environment of violence that has, in the past few decades, seen hundreds of thousands of civilians (including journalists) arbitrarily detained and arrested, forcibly disappeared, extra-judicially killed and tortured.  In the past 20 years, only four perpetrators have been brought to justice for attacking journalists.

Brave journalists continue to look at threats squarely in the face and risk their lives to uncover and report the truth to the Somali public. They report on divergent political views, human rights abuses and corruption. Instead of being rewarded for their efforts, they become the victims of state and non-state sponsored crimes and experience further victimisation as the culture of impunity for serious human rights violations committed against journalists remains the norm.

The lack of political will at all levels of the government and regional states is clear and unrelenting, almost indicating that attacks against journalists in Somalia is a politically organised crime. The police in the different regions of Somalia have been slow or unwilling to investigate crimes. In cases where courts make orders for cooperation or investigation these are generally not followed or implemented in a timely manner. Similarly, leading political figures appear to be keen to obstruct justice rather than promote it. Public officials in both the Federal Government and the Federal Member States operate in an environment granting very wide powers with limited human rights safeguards.

Legislative reforms to bring the public officials or security forces under civilian and democratic control have not gone far enough, and practical implementation of control and oversight envisaged in legislation has been severely deficient in the successive governments. While the country applauded the appointment of the Special Prosecutor, the work of that office is crippled and hampered by lack of adequate recourses. 

What is urgently needed

We cannot keep recognising this International Day ad infinitum. Addressing impunity is an obligation under international and domestic law and the cornerstone of a successful transition to a democratic Somalia. There is an urgent need to develop comprehensive human rights-compliant vetting procedures to ensure that public officials alleged of human rights abuses are suspended or removed from the public official duties. 

Somalia’s Penal Code should be reformed as it still used to criminalise certain acts and ensure justice remains elusive to perpetrators. Instead of an instrument against journalists, it must be used as a tool to ensure complaints are registered, and investigations proceed in a timelier manner, shielded from pressure, political or otherwise.

As the world marks yet another International Day to End Impunity, Somali journalists who are consistently denied justice are in terrible need of establishing the truth about the violations against them and their colleagues. Without tackling this culture of impunity, there can be no peace and freedom for journalists to live and operate. If journalists are unable to carry out their essential watchdog role and task of keeping the public informed, Somali society is poorer and weaker as a result.

Omar Faruk Osman, Secretary General, National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)