Somalia: Why Somalia Is One of the Hardest Places in the World to Be a Journalist

Nairobi, Kenya — ‘Women detainees held in a next-door cell whispered about the rapes they had experienced and passed me written notes with contact details of their families.’

Somalia is one of the hardest places in the world to be a journalist. I know, because I spent 44 days in detention – persecuted for upholding press freedom and defending ethical reporting.

Firstly, journalists in Somalia face incredible physical danger. It’s the most hazardous place in Africa to work as a media professional: Bombings and gun attacks by the jihadist group al-Shabab have killed so many of my colleagues over the years.

Then there’s the intolerance and corruption of the government, which arrests its critics and shuts down media houses. A total of 84 journalists were detained in 2022.

Finally, there’s the sheer logistical difficulty of leaving the urban areas to do your job and report freely on Somalia’s life-threatening drought and hunger. The powerful international aid agencies control access to humanitarian information, and they often select and frame the issues they want covered in a country where millions of Somalis – year after year – are dependent on relief.

As the secretary-general of the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), I thought I’d seen it all. That was until I was detained and began a nightmarish journey through Somalia’s criminal justice system.

It began on 11 October 2022 when I was stopped at Aden Adde International Airport in the capital, Mogadishu, as I was about to board my flight to Kenya to visit my family.

National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) officers took me from the airport to Godka Jila’ow, a notorious underground detention centre that was shut down in 2018 amid allegations of abuse but has since re-opened.

I knew what it was about. The day before, the SJS – along with other professional journalist groups – had issued a statement condemning a vaguely worded directive by the ministry of information banning the media from quoting al-Shabab’s “lies and propaganda”.

We argued that the order, taken without consultation with media organisations, threatened legitimate expression and press freedom. It also put journalists’ lives at even greater risk, as al-Shabab had threatened retaliation against any reporters who abided by the directive.

In Godka Jila’ow, they interrogated me for eight hours. At 1am, they locked me in a tiny concrete cell with no lighting or ventilation. I sat on the floor, my legs touching the cell door. I hadn’t eaten or taken anything to drink and felt badly dehydrated.

Brutal treatment

There were roughly 20 cells identical to mine. I could hear screaming coming from some of them. I didn’t know what was going on in the other cells. That first night, I thought I was going to die. I prepared myself and prayed, thinking of my family.

During my second day in detention, I managed to speak to some of the other prisoners. They ranged in age from 14-year-old boys to old men. Most were from minority groups in southern Somalia, economically and politically marginalised by the major clans. That makes them vulnerable to detention, extortion, and rape – with little or no repercussions for those who target and exploit them.

Many NISA officers are ex al-Shabab who have defected, and they are brutal. I heard harrowing cases from some of the prisoners about their use of electrocution, hooding, and severe beatings as interrogation techniques.

Women detainees held in a next-door cell whispered about the rapes they had experienced and passed me written notes with contact details of their families.

At the toilet block, I saw a bloodied bandage. It had fallen from a young detainee with a mental illness. He had been severely tortured.

After two more days of questioning and repeated threats, I was taken to another detention facility – this time run by the police – where they held me for 11 more days.

‘Bringing the nation into contempt’

The office of the attorney general had brought three charges against me, including an accusation of “bringing the nation into contempt”. The charges are derived from a colonial-era penal code that is routinely used to detain and prosecute journalists. It has led to self-censorship and a stifling of public debate on critical issues.

Days earlier, officials at the ministry of information had contacted me to try and make a deal. They would allow me to leave the country if I agreed to stop criticising the government and made a full apology. I declined.

After being charged, I was released, but only under travel restrictions that prevented me from flying to Kenya for medical treatment for a kidney infection and an eye allergy that had flared up during my incarceration. By this time, I had also caught malaria.

The next step was trial. The authorities had replaced the judges at the regional and appeals court – a move that seemed designed to negatively influence the verdict in my case.

On 13 February, following four court hearings, I was sentenced to two months in jail. But prison officials refused to implement the decision. When I was taken to Mogadishu central prison, the officers there said I had already served five months under various types of confinement and gave me back my freedom.

This was short-lived, however. Ten days later, armed men from the police and NISA detained me again while I was meeting with lawmakers from the federal parliament in a Mogadishu hotel. I was held captive in a private house in Mogadishu’s Bondhere district for a day and a half before being taken back to Mogadishu’s central prison.

Siding with ‘infidels’

I spent more than a month there, inside a cell there with 41 other inmates. There was little water, the hygiene conditions were extremely poor, and prisoners were often getting sick.

My heart still aches for one of the men who passed away inside my cell. His name was Hassan Ali Yaqub, aged 52. He died of malaria and high blood pressure. Because there was no doctor or medical services available, he received no treatment.

Yaqub’s corpse lay with us for almost 24 hours before the authorities removed the body. His was not the only death – three other prisoners died during the time I was detained. There is a saying in prison: “If you get sick, you are just waiting to die.”

While I was locked up and other journalists were being harassed by the authorities, al-Shabab issued a video message threatening Somali reporters. They used film clips of us at gatherings organised by the UN and other international aid partners, and accused us of being “pro-Western” and of spreading “propaganda against the mujahideen”.

Just so everyone understands the pressures we journalists face from all sides, the government has used similar language.

In a court hearing on 7 February, deputy prosecutor Farhan Hussein Mohamed said: “Abdalle Ahmed Mumin and the SJS provides support to journalists in Somalia. But the question is, who is funding SJS? It is the Western infidels who are supporting SJS to shame the Somali government.”