Somaliland Cyberspace

Somaliland and media freedom: It's time to Respect the freedom of Expression

June 29, 2017

As World Press Freedom Day is celebrated across the globe on May 3, we, the civil society activists cannot forget the untenable price journalists and bloggers pay for expressing their press freedom rights and for government criticism in Somaliland. On a time when the world commemorates the fundamental importance of press freedom, we call on the Somali authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the imprisoned journalists and opposition figures and hold to account those responsible for the illegal arrests and torture and other ill-treatment they were subjected to. This would mark an important step towards ensuring press freedoms and guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression in Somaliland.

Although Article 32 of the Somaliland constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, the government does not respect these rights. Somaliland has a history, at least since the election of 2010, of harassment and imprisoning of journalists. The civil society and human rights groups are accusing the government of failing to fulfill its constitutional obligations to protect freedom of expression and media freedoms.Press freedom advocacy organizations are regularly pushing back against government encroachments on the rights that citizens and journalists are entitled to.

Somaliland officials have openly responded to critical press coverage, even of routine press questioning, with harassment, threats, criminal charges, withholding of press and business licensing and even of violence or other forms of pressure against journalists and media outlets as a consequence of their work. For example, Somaliland journalist Mohamed Adan Dirir of online website is held without charge for asking question at press conference since June 21, 2017 by the Criminal Investigation Department, and Somaliland editor Ibrahim Osman Ahmed of Hangool newspaper, who was detained after trading himself for colleague's Abdirahman Arab Da'ud freedom in April 21, 2017 is still in jail. Journalist Abdilmalik Coldoon, who went to Mogadishu and had met with that country's new president was arrested in Feb, 2017 and subsequently, after being held incommunicado for three months, was convicted and sentenced to two years for anti-state charges, namely opposing the country's secession from Somalia that occured in 1991, the Human Rights Centre said. (He has since been paroled).

On 21st May 2017, Hargeisa Regional Court sentenced Yonis Ahmed Yonis, the shadow sports and youth secretary of Waddani opposition party, to one year of imprisonment for "instigation to disobey the laws" because of a statement he made at a press conference on 11th April 2017. He was charged of anti-national propaganda and association for purpose of 'committing crimes', without specifying what laws were broken. Somaliland Human Rights Centre condemned the government's persecution of legitimate political and independent activities and of handling of public criticism and called on the government to release the detained journalists and politicians.

The human rights centre reminded the government of prisoners' rights that include proper procedures around detention, so that the location of any detainee can be promptly established and the right to a lawyer from the moment of detention. The failure of the authorities to provide inmates' lawyers or families with information on their whereabouts indicates that these safeguards are not being met. Politically, this conviction on spurious charges bodes ill for both journalists and opposition figures during the upcoming election season. The government has arrested many journalists and social media activists in the past on fake criminal and administrative charges to prevent them from carrying out their legitimate work.

The routine imprisonment of reporters is a well-feared campaign by the authorities to retaliate against them for their critical journalism and defiance, but also to deter others from seeking justice for police abuse and well-documented harassment problems in Somaliland. Independent civil society in Somaliland is struggling to survive as the persisting persecutions limit the space for the work of critical NGOs, particularly for those working on human rights, transparency, and government accountability.

Since 2010, journalists working in both print and electronic media faced harsh legal restrictions. The current government has systematically eroded the fledgling country's nascent civil society through the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists on bogus politically motivated charges, as well as by defamation laws and regulations restricting the activities of independent groups and political groups ability to secure support and funding and have continued to repeatedly harass and jail activists who advocate for good governance and transparency. The use of the 1962 Somalia penal code continues to fall short of regional and international standards by imposing restrictions on the media in the interests of "national security and public order."

But Somaliland government is liable for violating freedom of expression. Following the landmark decision of Lohé Issa Konaté v. The Republic of Burkina Faso on December 5, 2014 the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights ruled that Burkina Faso violated the right to freedom of expression of Burkinabé journalist Issa Lohé Konaté through its use of criminal defamation laws. The court ordered Burkina Faso to amend its anti-press laws and the African court's decisions are binding on all African Union member states, including the unrecognized Somaliland.

The court noted that public figures such as prosecutors and judges must tolerate more criticism than private individuals. With this ruling, Africa joins the rest of the international standards who affirm that criminal defamation laws and other measures used to restrict freedom of expression be eliminated, that criminal sanctions, if applied, should only be used under extreme circumstances, that imprisonment should never be an option, and that other penalties should be proportionate.

Significantly, this year is the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration of press freedom principles adopted by the UNESCO in Namibia in 1991. It set out to make governments and citizens acknowledge that the free flow of information is a fundamental right. The declaration is calling on all African governments to ensure that journalists are able to carry out their work without fear, free from intimidation and harassment.

What Should Be Done?

For the upcoming November 2017 elections in Somaliland to be credible and fair, after two years of legislative and other delaying tactics, the media and the opposition parties personalities need to be able to report on and discuss pressing issues of national interest without fear of reprisals. The government should publicly underscore the importance of freedom of expression and condemn threats and attacks on journalists and bloggers. Doing so means the government is respecting and upholding its obligations under national and international human rights laws, and the citizens's right to receive and obtain information at this critical time.

Whether Somaliland is currently recognized or not, this lack of accountability for human rights should also raise red flags for the United Nations and international financial institutions – World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Africa Development Bank, and others – which have publicly endorsed and seem committed to democratic participation, transparency, and accountability.

It will be a mistake for foreign countries and international organizations to be inclined to appear to prioritize the emerging country's geostrategic importance and hydrocarbon resources and seek to deepen relationships and cooperation without insisting on clear human rights improvements and democratic governmence. The United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States should impose travel bans on senior government officials such as the president, government ministers, prosecutors and judges responsible for the unjustified criminal prosecutions of human rights defenders, journalists and activists in retaliation for their peaceful exercise of their rights.

Dr Mohamed Bali
29 June, 2017