Somalia’s new media law ignores calls for journalists to be protected

Concerned about a new media law that contains significant improvements but fails to prevent imprisonment for media-related offences, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Somalia’s most senior federal authorities to decree an urgent moratorium on arrests of journalists, without which press freedom will not be able to progress.

The long-awaited package of amendments to the controversial 2016 Media Law that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, also known as “Farmaajo,” signed into law this week has not, as many had hoped, eliminated the possibility of journalists being jailed in connection with their work. It does contain major advances that will help to guarantee freedom of expression and opinion and press freedom, as enshrined in the 2012 Federal Provisional Constitution. It also provides for public service broadcasting, thereby helping to promote editorial independence and public accountability, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), a press freedom NGO that is RSF’s partner in Somalia.

But, despite RSF’s recommendations, the new law is not accompanied by any moratorium on arrests of journalists, which continue to take place at an alarming level, one of the highest in Africa.

There are major concerns about the new law’s criminalization of journalistic activities. Article 3 makes it illegal for journalists to be compelled by threat or force – for example, by political or armed actors – to publish “information which conflicts with the interests of the country, security, the economy, politics and society.” The new law does not protect the confidentiality of sources and makes it possible for journalists to be held responsible for the consequences of disclosing confidential information. It allows journalists to be fined for violations without limiting the size of the fines. And it says that verdicts and sentences can be appealed before unspecified “competent jurisdictions,” opening the way to prison sentences.

The amended media law contains some encouraging articles but they are undermined by the criminalization of journalistic acts, which continues to the part of the law despite our recommendations, and it does not decree a moratorium on arrests of journalists,” RSF editor-in-chief Pauline Adès-Mével said.“Somalia is still, and will continue to be, one of the continent’s most repressive countries as regards arrests of journalists. We call on the federal authorities to go further with media law reform in order to enable Somali journalists to work freely and without constraints, otherwise the government's promises of efforts in favour of press freedom and democratic values will remain unfulfilled.”

During a meeting in Paris in November 2019 with Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre, RSF urged the rapid adoption of a national mechanism to protect and secure journalists. Somalia continues to be Africa’s deadliest country for journalists, with more than 50 killed in the past ten years. Efforts have nonetheless been made to combat impunity in recent years. A police officer who shot a journalist dead at a checkpoint was convicted in absentia and given a prison sentence. Two soldiers were discharged from the army for mistreating reporters. And, in response to a request from the NUSOJ, a court ordered the attorney-general’s office to investigate the more than 50 murders of journalist that remain unpunished.

Somalia is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.