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In Somalia, Slain Journalists’ Deaths Go Unpunished

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For the third year in a row, Somalia has ranked as the world’s leading country where slain journalists’ deaths go unpunished.

Over the past decade, all 26 assassinations of journalists in the East African nation have gone unsolved, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which released its annual impunity index, titled “Getting Away With Murder,” on Tuesday.

The New York-based non-profit gathers data on news workers killed in retaliation for their journalism, excluding those who die in crossfire while reporting in dangerous areas such as combat zones (but are not directly targeted).
CPJ, which seeks to underscore international barriers to media freedom, publishes its findings every year to document patterns of impunity, such as those consistently seen in Somalia.

According to the United Nations, at least 930 journalists were assassinated worldwide in the decade leading up to 2017. During that period, just one in 10 reported cases led to a conviction. More than 60 media workers have been killed this year.

Political reporters under fire

Somalia is gripped by a decades-long civil war and brutal insurgency being waged by the extremist al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group.

Since the country’s civil war erupted in 1991, at least 64 journalists in the country have been killed as a result of their work, including 39 political reporters and 29 war reporters. CPJ, which began keeping track of worldwide journalist deaths in 1992, has confirmed the motives behind their killings, and reports that the vast majority of known perpetrators have been members of political groups.

Mohamed Ibrahim, now the Secretary General of the National Union of Somali Journalists, has covered politics and other news beats in the capital city of Mogadishu for 15 years, reporting for outlets including the BBC and Reuters.

Throughout his career, Ibrahim says he has been threatened, harassed and assaulted several times, mostly by al-Shabab militants and senior officials of the Somali government. Illustrative of the broader dangers of his job, he also narrowly survived al-Shabab attacks while working at a Somali parliament building in 2010 and at Lido beach in Mogadishu last year.

Ibrahim still finds himself looking over his shoulder when he leaves home, fearful of a targeted strike by someone who is unhappy with his reporting or advocacy for press freedom.

“Journalists are often targeted and I advocate for their rights and protections, so I know it is a high risk environment,” he told HuffPost from Mogadishu. “So many journalists like me have risked their lives to serve their people and [distribute] the information they have the right to hear.”

Lacking institutional capacity and political will

As a result of the ongoing conflict, Somalia’s federal government does not assert central authority over the entire nation, which has allowed armed groups like al-Shabab to spread and seize territory over the years.

“In general, Somalia lacks structures of central government, so in countries like this that might be called ‘failed states,’ there are very high levels of impunity. It’s a combination of the lack of political will as well as the lack of institutional capacity,” said Courtney Radsch, CPJ’s advocacy director. “That’s the key challenge ― [the government] doesn’t have access to certain parts of the country, and they don’t have a fully functioning judiciary system or police force.”

Rare government investigations into journalist killings only occur when the accused perpetrators are al-Shabab militants, and almost never lead to prosecutions, according to Human Rights Watch. Promises from Somali authorities to improve media laws and protections have repeatedly fallen short.

Laetitia Bader, a senior researcher for HRW’s Africa division who has reported on killings, threats and arbitrary detention of Somali journalists, said they’re being “pulled and threatened by all sides.”

“Since the start of the civil war, there wasn’t really a strong civil society per se,” she told HuffPost from Nairobi, Kenya. “It feeds into a broader problem of just lack of state protection of individuals, although journalists have always been targeted throughout the conflict in Somalia.”

Somali journalists are being “pulled and threatened by all sides.” Laetitia Bader, Senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch
Journalists are also particularly vulnerable, Bader explained, because the news “is a very big part of everyone’s day and a key source of information” in Somalia. “Somalis love listening to the news … so fundamentally, there’s a recognition that journalists can play an important role in getting your agendas across.”

An increasingly complex political situation in the country has led to “more political actors with much more at stake,” she said. “So once again, this need to control information has become a bigger issue.”

Threatening and punishing journalists can be lucrative for political figures who want to “control the narrative,” said CPJ’s Radsch.

“It’s not surprising in a country like Somalia where there are so many warring factions,” Radsch said. “They want to control the narrative, or cover up their own corruption, or gain political power. Journalists often stand in the way of that, or uncover uncomfortable revelations.”

The cycle of impunity

Somalia is hardly the only country in the world where there are extensive risks for journalists.

In its latest report on “the safety of journalists and the danger of impunity,” the U.N. concluded that impunity for journalist slayings around the world is “alarmingly high,” and perpetuates “a cycle of violence that silences media and stifles public debate.”

But the danger in Somalia is particularly acute. The country’s impunity rating, which CPJ determines by calculating countries’ numbers of unsolved journalist killings per capita, has shot up by 198 percent since 2007. Radsch attributed this drastic increase to the cyclical effects of impunity.

“It’s very dangerous to be a journalist in Somalia, and it’s very unlikely that murders will be investigated,” she said. “When people see that there is no one who has been convicted, and no follow-ups on the murder of journalists, it sends them the signal that ‘Oh, it’s ok to murder journalists.’”

While conducting research in Somalia, Bader has spoken with several journalists who survived assassination attempts, but were hesitant to report the attacks to authorities.

“Half said, ‘We did [report], and we got laughed at or were told to go get guns,’ and the other half basically laughed at me saying ‘Why on earth would we go to the authorities?’ ― who are often the ones threatening them,” she said.

As the numbers reflect, many journalists have not been fortunate enough to escape with their lives.

Radio journalist Abdiaziz Ali was reportedly gunned down while walking through Mogadishu last September. He covered the civilian toll of Somalia’s conflict between government forces and al-Shabab militants for the Shabelle Media Network, an employer of at least eight slain journalists over the past decade.

Months earlier, gunmen fatally shot 24-year-old Sagal Salad Osman in the head before fleeing the scene. Osman was a university student and worked for the state-run Radio Mogadishu.

“The killing of Somali journalist Abdiaziz Ali must not be allowed to become yet another statistic in a country notorious for not bringing journalists’ murderers to justice,” Murithi Mutiga, CPJ’s East Africa representative, said at the time. “We urge Somali authorities to leave no stone unturned in determining the motive for Abdiaziz’s and Sagal’s killings and finding and prosecuting those responsible.”

But more than a year later, the culprits behind their killings are still at large, like dozens of others before them.

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Briefing Room

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Briefing Room

US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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Briefing Room

Somalia to Probe Evictions of Thousands of Displaced Families

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NAIROBI — The Somali government responded to widespread criticism by aid agencies on Wednesday, promising to investigate reports that thousands of families fleeing drought and conflict were forcefully evicted from more than 20 informal camps.

The United Nations and groups such as the Somalia NGO Consortium say more than 4,000 families, or about 20,000 people, had their homes bulldozed last month inside settlements on the outskirts of the capital of Mogadishu.

The demolitions on private land were unannounced, they said, and pleas by the community — largely women and children — for time to collect their belongings and go safely were not granted.

Some aid workers who witnessed the evictions said uniformed government soldiers were involved in the demolitions.

“Regarding the forced evictions, we are really deeply concerned. We are investigating the number of evictions,” Gamal Hassan, Somalia’s minister for planning, investment and economic development, told participants at a U.N. event.

“We have to make sure we investigate and have to make sure we know exactly what happened. And then we will issue a report and you can take a look at it and see what happened and how it happened,” he said by video conference from Mogadishu.

The impoverished east African nation of more than 12 million people has been witnessing an unprecedented drought, with poor rains for four consecutive seasons.

It has also been mired in conflict since 1991 and its Western-backed government is struggling to assert control over poor, rural areas under the Islamist militant group al Shabab.

The U.N. says drought and violence have forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, often in informal settlements located around small towns and cities.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Wednesday condemned the demolitions, and said the fate of those evicted did not fit with the progress Somalia has made.

“Not only did these people lose their homes, but the basic infrastructure that was provided by humanitarian partners and donors, such as latrines, schools, community centers — has been destroyed,” said Peter De Clercq, head of OCHA in Somalia, at the same event.

“I reiterate my condemnation of this very serious protection violation and call on the national and regional authorities to take necessary steps to protect and assist these people who have suffered so much.”

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