Why is a U.N. diplomat comparing Somali journalists to Rwandan war criminals?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 17 2009 11:20 AM

They Kill Journalists, Don't They?

Why is a U.N. diplomat comparing Somali journalists to Rwandan war criminals?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Somali journalists—like this one from Radio Galkaio—are a rare and endangered species and should be protected, not vilified. Click image to expand.
Somali journalists—like this one from Radio Galkaio—are a rare and endangered species and should be protected, not vilified 

NAIROBI, Kenya—Somalia has the sad distinction of being the quintessential failed state. It is also one of the most underreported disasters in the world. The one phenomenon that penetrates international headlines— piracy —is the offshore symptom of a land-based problem.

Apart from the toll of the civil war and clan infighting, natural disasters—droughts, floods, sometimes both—and the resulting famine can lead to more deaths in a volatile country like Somalia. If the mass migration of internally displaced persons fleeing the conflict or crisis is not reported, international humanitarian groups are unable to mobilize their resources to provide help.

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News is scarce because journalism is a deadly profession in Somalia. Organizations such as Reporters Sans Frontières and the Committee To Protect Journalists have consistently highlighted the situation there. Since 2007, 12 journalists have been killed in Somalia, Africa's deadliest country for the news media. So far this year, two journalists have been gunned down: In January, a reporter from Radio Shabelle and in February, Said Tahlil Ahmed, the director of HornAfrik, one of Somalia's leading privately owned radio stations.

It is therefore most unsettling, to say the least, when a special representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, speaks about the work of Somali journalists in highly derogatory, indeed inflammatory terms.

Here is what happened: On Feb. 2, a suicide bomber in Mogadishu targeted Ugandan soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Local media then reported that following the bomb blast, AMISOM troops reacted by shooting indiscriminately, possibly killing civilians in the area. Reliable sources told Human Rights Watch that at least 13 Somalis were killed and at least 15 more were wounded by the bomb blast and ensuing gunfire. "Most of the dead, many or all of whom were civilians, were killed by gunfire," says the HRW report.

The next day, in an interview with Voice of America, U.N. Special Representative Ould-Abdallah declared that he did not know the exact details of the events in Mogadishu; however, he said of reports of the incident: "What happened is to divert attention from what is going on here, and as usual to use the media to repeat Radio Mille Collines, to repeat the genocide in Rwanda."

This is very serious.

To compare journalists to génocidaires—Rwandan war criminals—is irresponsible given the tense atmosphere on the ground and the risks that all Somali journalists face when doing their jobs.

Ould-Abdallah's statement "motivates the criminals and warlords who have been committing unpunished crimes against journalists to keep on their merciless war against media," said Omar Faruk Osman, head of the respected National Union of Somali Journalists.

The day after Ould-Abdallah's interview, the director of HornAfrik was murdered in Mogadishu. Three days later, the director of a provincial station, Radio Abudwaq, was seriously injured when he was stabbed while attending a "reconciliation meeting" between two rival clans.

But the slanderous comparison of Somali reporters to Rwandan war criminals was not the last of the U.N. representative's outrages.

Even more un-U.N.-ish was Ould-Abdallah's call to ban all media reports: "[T]he time has come for [a] one-month truce on reporting till there is double-, triple-checking, because Somalia is exceptional. We have to have exceptional checking of the news," he said.         

Imposing a gag order is contrary to Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which covers freedom of expression. The International Federation of Journalists called this intended news blackout "ill-thought out and counterproductive." Somalia's warring factions already try to muzzle the local media—this is amply documented by media watchdogs. When a U.N. diplomat does the same thing, the intention is to silence the messenger.

Moreover, given the lack of security in Somalia, demanding that facts be triple-checked is to set unrealistic standards and—what is worse—could be deadly.

In the humanitarian community—to which I migrated from the world of pure journalism—our operating space is also shrinking due to security concerns, and Somalia is among the most dangerous places in the world. In 2008, two dozen aid workers were reported killed in Somalia, and this year, two employees of the World Food Program were shot dead, while four employees of Action Against Hunger and two European Commission-contracted pilots are currently being held hostage along with around 20 other humanitarian workers.

Journalists and aid workers are part of Somalia's civil society. As such, they often receive death threats and are accused of interference and bias by all sides of the conflict. These threats and accusations should not be left to stand, even—indeed, especially—if they come from a U.N. diplomat.

Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee.