Killing the Messengers - International Herald Tribune
Galkayo, Somalia - Among the similarities between Iraq's mayhem and Somalia's mayhem, one thing is particularly telling: the killing of journalists.
Every week both Baghdad and Mogadishu are scenes of roadside bombings, mortar attacks and civilian deaths from crossfire and explosions. But being a reporter in either country means taking a calculated extra risk, because journalists are not simply victims of random violence, they are purposely targeted.
With seven reporters or other media personnel killed so far this year, Somalia is the deadliest conflict in Africa for journalists. In this respect it is also the second deadliest conflict in the world after Iraq.
"Somalia has become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist," says Sahal Abudulle, a Somali correspondent for Reuters.
He knows. On Aug. 11 in Mogadishu he went to the funeral of Mahad Ahmed Elmi, one of the founders of the HornAfrik press agency, who was shot four times in the head at close range that morning.
HornAfrik, which owns eight radio stations and a TV channel, has a 105-member staff and runs a Web site with information in Somali and English. According to the BBC, its broadcasts have "angered both the government and Islamist opposition."
On the way back from the funeral, Abdulle lost another friend, Ali Iman Sharmarke - another of the three founders of HornAfrik. Sharmarke was killed by a remote-controlled land mine that exploded under their car. Abdulle was wounded but survived.
HornAfrik is critical of all sides of the Somali conflict: the Transitional Federal Government and the Ethiopians who support it, as well as the insurgents from the Union of Islamic Courts.
It has lost five staff members in recent years. Shabelle, another media outlet that says one of its reporters was arrested, beaten and robbed, has been critical of the transnational government. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, government security forces raided the Radio Shabelle office in Mogadishu last Saturday and detained 19 staff members.
There is no doubt that the attacks are meant to silence the press: 11 journalists were arrested this year, five news media outlets were attacked and three others were forced to close down. Four other Somali media personnel were shot and wounded and most of 30 others who tried to flee to Kenya were held at the closed border, inside Somalia.
Elmi and Sharmarke were Somali Canadians. Sahal Abdulle is too, and he is now in Canada, pondering whether to return to Somalia. "Journalists in Somalia are in more danger than ever before," he says. "But if we all leave there'll be no one to tell the story."
Of course the most important is the story of the conflict. But there are many other stories that when unreported, or under-reported, can lead to more deaths in a country as volatile as Somalia.
The drought and the floods, the mass migration of internally displaced persons fleeing the conflict or the climatic hardship, are facts that we need to know about in order to be able to mobilize our resources and try to help.
Can anything be done? Amnesty International has called for press freedom initiatives for Somalia and suggested close monitoring of the situation as well as solidarity visits. The International Federation of Journalists calls on the UN secretary general to send a mission to investigate the situation.
But such actions depend on freedom to enter the country, and, once there, the possibility and safety to move around it.
Humanitarian workers face a similar challenge: Unable to reach certain parts of the country, we often cannot even evaluate the situation, let alone bring aid.
On a recent visit to the northern part of Somalia to assess water and sanitation needs, we were briefed by a journalist from Radio Galkayo. His insights made us realize what a logistical nightmare it was to operate there. Insecurity made every move extremely slow, extremely costly - and extremely dangerous.
As a result, a lot of our resources and energy go to protect our own staff and assets, without which we cannot operate. This is not an efficient way of doing things but, in a war zone it is usually the only way possible.
We may not be able to assist as many people as need to be assisted. But advocacy on behalf of the suffering, supported by media reports, may help reduce further mayhem, or focus the attention necessary so that people in danger are not ignored.