Friday, July 29, 2016

Somaliland - Hargeisa Book Fair 2016 Media and Leadership Panel Address

By Conrad Heine (Somaliland Focus UK)
HIBF 2016 Media and Leadership Panel Address – 23/07/2016
Thank you, Professor, fellow panelists, and to everyone who has contributed to the success of the Hargeisa Book Fair as it nears the beginning of its second decade, especially the visionaries Jame Musse Jama, Ayan Mahommed and the huge team who have made this week and all past book fairs possible.
I am honoured to be here.

Moving on from my fellow panelists, I am speaking specifically about Somaliland. I am here today in two roles: as a freelance journalist who has closely followed Somaliland since 2005, and as a representative of a group based in London called Somaliland Focus UK.
Edna Aden address at the book Fair - web image 

Somaliland Focus UK formed in 2005 around a group of international observers of the parliamentary election that year.
Since our formation we have been making the case, in strictly non-partisan fashion, for wider international awareness of Somaliland and its democratic process.
To this end we took part again in further international observation missions to 2010’s presidential election, and the local elections in 2012. We’ve been delighted to observe the progress of Somaliland’s democratic achievements, in particular the peaceful transition from one presidential administration to another following the election in 2010. That was a truly impressive achievement, and we are proud to have been able to witness it.
We very much hope to participate in further international election observations in 2017 and beyond, and to keep contributing for as long as Somalilanders wish us to. However, I am not here today to talk about elections. Well, not directly anyway. I am here to talk about the role of the media in Somaliland, and how that ties in with the overall theme of this week’s event, namely leadership.
Let me be clear that as an outsider and a non-expert – I am not even a speaker or reader of Somali – that I am not here to tell Somaliland how to do media, or to tell the Somaliland media how to do their jobs in the environment in which they operate, with all its challenges.
I am also no expert on the legal environment here – on the Penal Code, the Press Law of 2004, or indeed any prospective Media Law. Declarations on such matters are best to left to those who are the true experts.
Instead I am here to offer my thoughts on behalf of Somaliland Focus as an observer on Somaliland media matters from outside, and how issues of media relate to how Somaliland is perceived abroad.
Somaliland, it is very clear, boasts a vibrant media environment across a full range of formats: newspapers, television, radio, online and social media especially, are all well  represented.
Journalists have emerged as leaders and opinion-formers, under the leadership of organisations such as the Somaliland Journalists Association, also represented here on this panel.
As I said before, the primary activity of Somaliland Focus has been election observation. However, since 2012 we have also found it necessary to focus on media matters.
It has been clear to us for some time that it is difficult for the media to operate as truly independent in Somaliland, and that official and non-official harassment of media is a grave concern in Somaliland.
This has clearly not been as serious an issue as in other East African countries. South of Somaliland, for example, journalists have regularly been killed while simply doing their job.
But the problem is serious enough. Furthermore, we have noted that harassment of journalists and media outlets, which took place under the previous administration, has continued since the election of the new administration in 2010.
The Fourth Estate is a cornerstone of a functioning democratic system. So, as a group with a close interest in Somaliland’s democratic journey, and how Somaliland is perceived abroad, we felt moved to express our concerns via open letters to Somaliland’s authorities in response to specific incidents of media harassment over 2012, 2013 and 2014.
My fellow panelist from SOLJA can no doubt give a far more exhaustive account of incidents. But to be brief, in our letters we have noted targeting of media organisations including: Haatuf, Hubaal, Horn Cable TV, Waaheen, Yool, Jaamhuriya, and the English-language Somaliland Times. Please forgive my pronunciation.
Harassment has taken many forms, from arrest and detention to short and longer periods, paramilitary raids on media premises, shutting down of media organisations for short and indefinite periods, and issuing of fines and individual brutality.
At times it has been difficult not to conclude that such actions have been politically motivated, rather than legally motivated.
We note that we have not been alone in our concerns from outside Somaliland. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a respected independent international organization, has also been moved to express concerns about media harassment in Somaliland on numerous occasions.
In 2014, the CPJ suggested that while the rate and duration of arbitrary detentions of journalists had decreased, this may have been due to the chilling effect of previous harassment: in other words, that journalists had sometimes become too scared to report freely.
Simply writing open letters is an activity subject to diminishing returns. As I said  earlier, I am not here to tell Somalilanders what to do, and I suspect it would be futile to even try.
But let me just say that I am very glad to see this panel discussion happening today. It is long overdue.
As a participant, all I can do is offer my honest opinion from outside: that a situation where journalists face ongoing harassment does no good to the image of Somaliland’s admirable democratic journey, expressed so far so well in numerous election processes.
From the Somaliland Focus viewpoint, it negatively affects our ability to effectively advocate for Somaliland, as the media compromises a vital democratic pillar. At the same time, we are aware that there are two sides to this story.
My colleague at Somaliland Focus, Dr Michael Walls, has pointed out that at times, journalistic integrity has been low in an environment in which defamation and libel laws are weak to non-existent and where journalists struggle to make a name for themselves in the face of intense competition for paid work.
Editors and media owners have time and again shown themselves more than willing to use that situation for their own enrichment.
The CPJ has pointed out that many journalists in Somaliland lack training and professional guidance. Journalistic training is thin on the ground, and some media houses are used not for journalism but to further the political or other agendas of media owners.
In a small way, I’ve had my own personal experience of how some in the media here can sometimes indulge in less than ethical practices.
In 2012, while serving as the press officer for the international observation mission to the local elections, I was surprised, when I issued an invitation to a press conference to the media, to be approached by one journalist with a demand for payment to attend.
A demand that was of course refused. I seem to recall the journalist attended the conference anyway.
I am aware that as an outsider, that there is a danger of my impressions being inaccurate and unnuanced as to the realities of how things actually operate on the ground in Somaliland.
Also that as an outsider from the west, that there is a danger of my statements being prescriptive in a manner that visitors from the west have foisted upon the developing world too many times in the past and indeed the present.
I am of course seeking to avoid doing this, both personally and on behalf of Somaliland Focus.
However, at danger of sounding repetitive: whatever the issues around the media environment here, in particular the legal environment, from my outsider’s perspective it is simply not a good look at all for Somaliland’s authorities, as they seek to strengthen Somaliland’s case for nationhood,
to be seen to be targeting the media in general on any scale.
And it would appear the situation is ongoing. This very month, it has been reported that a journalist with Somaliland National Television has been arrested here in Hargeisa.
Earlier this year, it was reported that three newspapers had been closed in Somaliland since 2015, in one case because a journalist was accused of insulting powerful figures here.
So now, the question is what to do about this situation, especially as a well functioning media is becoming ever more vital as Somaliland continues its democratic journey, with elections scheduled for 2017.
In conclusion I would like to return to the theme of this year’s event – leadership, and how it relates to the media environment in Somaliland.
Leadership needs to come from both authorities and media, to strengthen media networks as Somaliland continues to develop its democratic project, and to build a truly independent and fit for purpose media environment respected in the eyes of the world.
To quote Dr Walls again: Somaliland desperately needs a media that is vibrant, strong and responsible.
In order for that to become a reality, government harassment must stop, but just as important is the introduction of meaningful legislation that regulates the media in a proportionate and open way. Just as we have seen in the UK, those within government and media sometimes conspire to avoid the introduction of effective media controls.
For its own sake, Somaliland needs to show the way by introducing effective and well-considered legislation that promotes both freedom of speech and high-quality and responsible journalism.
I am pleased to note that there does indeed seem to be a great desire to move beyond the impasse.
The very fact that this panel discussion is happening at this important annual event is evidence of that.
We have also been pleased to note that journalists were included in a recent writing programme hosted by the Redsea cultural centre. But it is also clear that much more is needed.
In closing, I repeat my call for leadership on media matters in Somaliland from both sides.
The current situation does Somaliland’s case for world attention no good at all: whatever the subtleties, the repeated harassment of journalists seriously undermines Somaliland’s claim to be a free, open and democratic society.
And with further elections on the near horizon, what better time to emphasise the great progress Somaliland has made by encouraging a free, fair and high quality media to flourish in a dynamic and open democratic society?
Thank you.