Somber World Press Day in Somalia after 5th death

AP News

5/3/2012 7:26:41 PM - AP News

Dozens of Somali journalists met Thursday in somber silence to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, a meeting that came only hours after the killing of the fifth Somali journalist this year.

Two armed men shadowed Somali radio journalist Farhan Abdulle after he left his station late Wednesday, then shot him dead.

His death is the latest in a string of what appear to be targeted killings of reporters in Somalia, where journalists must watch their backs for attacks from militants and criminals and fight through judicial inaction and even outright hostility from the government.

The U.S. in a statement on Thursday said that too many deaths of journalists are going unpunished in Somalia, while media and rights groups condemned the Somali information minister for harassing reporters.

Britain also expressed its alarm at Abdulle's killing.

"This shocking murder tragically underlines the ongoing struggle throughout the world for press freedom and I offer my condolences to ... Abdulle's family and friends," Britain's Africa minister, Henry Bellingham, said. "It is particularly distressing to see further violence against journalists in Somalia."

Journalist Abdullahi Ahmed recalled staring at his phone in fear recently when an unregistered number kept calling him. Many Somali journalists reported similar problems.

"They call you and threaten you," said Ahmed, a TV reporter. "You have to sometimes abandon answering unknown calls. A call you think is from an ordinary caller can turn out to be a threatening call. It's a stressful situation."

The day after Abdulle's killing in the northern town of Galkayo, dozens of worried journalists met in Mogadishu to commemorate World Press Freedom Day.

"We are meeting at a difficult time, and also few hours after the killing of one of our friends," said Abdirashid Abdulle Abikar, a leader of the journalists' union. "Our friends are leaving the country and many are still committed to continue their work despite the risks."

African Union troops have pushed al-Shabab militants out of the capital, which is now safer than in recent years. Despite the general safety, journalists have become a common target.

Journalist Muhyadin Hassan said he escaped an assassination attempt after gunmen opened fire on him, slightly wounding him. The attack led him to abandon his job and his family.

"You can't stay where those tried to kill you are still threatening you," said Hassan, who fled to neighboring Kenya. "It's not a good idea, nor a logical decision, just to wait to lose your life."

Amnesty International noted that Abdulle is the second journalist killed in Galkayo in the last six months. The group said that Abdulle's death is a "shocking reminder of the price that Somali journalists continue to pay for working in such a dangerous environment, and of the impunity that those responsible for killing journalists continue to enjoy in Somalia."

Amnesty said the Somali government has failed to bring anyone to justice for the killings of at least 28 journalists since 2007.

The U.S. special representative to Somalia, James Swan, noted that journalists in Somalia in particular must work while battling government efforts to censor information and while knowing that militants or other criminals may target them for what they report.

Swan said credible accusations are frequently levied against Somalia's central government and authorities in the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland.

"When governments use fear to suppress criticism they weaken their standing with their own constitutions and the international community," Swan wrote.

In Somalia, terrorists and criminals also target members of the media, he said. Swan said too many attacks on and killings of journalists go unpunished and said the U.S. is committed to working with "responsible" Somali authorities to bring an end to the culture of impunity.

"When journalists are threatened, attacked, jailed, or disappeared, other journalists self-censor," Swam wrote. "They stop reporting stories. They tone down stories. They omit details. Sources stop helping them. Their editors hesitate to print stories. Fear replaces truth. All of our societies suffer."

Reporters Without Borders on Thursday condemned "the furious pace" of physical attacks on news providers. The group said 21 journalists and six Internet or citizen journalists have been killed globally in 2012, "many of them in war zones such as Somalia and Syria."

The killings work out to one death of a news provider every five days, it said. Only Syria topped Somalia, with six killings so far this year.

"The first quarter of 2012 has clearly shown that the world's predators of the freedom to inform, led by Syria's Bashar Al-Assad and Somalia's Islamist militias, are capable of behaving like outright butchers," the group said.

The group named six new opponents of freedom of information: Boko Haram, an Islamist group in Nigeria; Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; the information minister in Somalia's transitional federal government, for harassing and intimidating journalists; Vasif Talibov of Azerbaijan's region of Nakhchivan; Pakistan's intelligence agencies; and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.

Also Thursday, Zimbabwe's prime minister called World Press Freedom Day a "hollow day" in the southern African nation because of continued media repression by the president's party.

Morgan Tsvangirai said press freedom in the nation remains curbed by President Robert Mugabe and loyalists in charge of the dominant state media and information ministry. Independent media groups have reported a rise in intimidation of independent journalists ahead of elections. Tsvangirai said officials holding back media reforms were working at the behest of Mugabe.

The United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day in 1993.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement Thursday that recent political change in the Arab world has shown that new and old media platforms and can help transform societies through greater transparency and accountability. The two called freedom of expression one of the world's "most precious rights."

"It underpins every other freedom and provides a foundation for human dignity," the two said.

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Jason Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.