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Somalia's journalists are under Al-Shabab's gun.

Summary: More than 50 journalists have been killed in Somalia since the civil war began in the country in 1990.

More than 50 journalists have been killed in Somalia since the civil war began in the country in 1990. It is the most dangerous place for journalists to operate on the African continent. The terrorist group Al-Shabab has attacked military and civilian targets and has routinely used intimidation of the press as a tool through which it seeks to control the narrative of its conflict.

Six years ago, the leaders of Al-Shabab invited journalists -- myself included -- to a news conference in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital city. It was a trap to assassinate the journalists who attended, but we didn't find out until it was too late. I witnessed Al-Shabab shoot my colleague, Said Tahlil, right in front of me. I could not even rush him to the nearest health center to save his life because all roads were closed due to the fighting between the Al-Shabab gunmen and members of the government militia.

Although Al-Shabab has been pushed back into rural Somali towns and no longer controls major cities in Somalia, it continues to carry out attacks and bombings in the region. Al-Shabab is allied to Al-Qaeda, and as a result of this it is fighting for the establishment of a fundamentalist Somali Islamic state.

Despite the peril we face as journalists, independent Somali media aren't aligned with the government or with Al-Shabab. Instead, we are non-partisan and time and again have to take a neutral stance in the stories that we report.

Last month, the Somali government put further constraints on our editorial freedom. It did so by banning journalists in the country from using the word "Al-Shabab" in their coverage when referring to the Islamist insurgent group. "Al-Shabab" is an Arabic word that means "the youth." Instead, the government memo asked that media outlets now refer to Al-Shabab as "the group that massacres the Somali people."

Al-Shabab has threatened to take strong action against any journalist or media group that agrees to follow the order that was issued by the government. Since top daily news stories often involve Al-Shabab as a key player, this creates a dilemma for Somalia's journalists and puts them in a state of perpetual fear.

Al-Shabab is believed to have around 8,000 combatants and has drawn radical militants from countries across the globe. This month, for example, a 25-year-old man from the United Kingdom is believed to have been killed while storming a military base in northern Kenya along with Al-Shabab fighters.

As Kenya has been sending troops to battle Al-Shabab in regions of Somalia, Al-Shabab has retaliated by carrying out several attacks in Kenya. In April, it murdered 147 people in an attack at Garissa University College, their intention being to wipe out the university's Christian students. In 2013, in a much-publicized operation, Al-Shabab attacked Nairobi's Westgate Mall, killing at least 67 people.

In principal, the government's request that Somali media stop using the name "Al-Shabab" may seem like an honorable refusal to pander to terrorism. However, there are serious ramifications for some of the most vulnerable professionals in the region: Al-Shabab could end up escalating its war against journalists.

The Somali Independent Media Houses Association, which I founded in 2013, is a media advocacy group that operates to help member media houses drive innovation across their areas of coverage.

SIMHA has released a press statement calling on the government of Somalia to withdraw its order, and in that way avoid exposing the country's journalists -- especially independent journalists -- to the very real danger of Al-Shabab retaliation.

At this time, it doesn't seem that the Somali government has any plans to rescind its order. At the same time, state media have already removed the moniker "Al-Shabab" from their coverage of the conflict in Somalia. If there is no room for negotiation on the side of the government, we may resort to challenging the order in local court.

Hassan Gesey is the chairman of the Somali Independent Media Houses Association, a media advocacy group that operates to help member media houses drive innovation across their areas of coverage. He co-founded the organization in 2013 following his successful establishment of Radio Dalsan, one of the leading radio stations in Somalia. You can follow him on Twitter at @HAliGesey. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:6SOMA
Date:Jun 26, 2015
Words:748
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