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In Mogadishu objectivity is a luxury most journalists cannot afford

About the author
Harun Hassan worked for Associated Press and the BBC in Somalia. He currently works as a freelancer.
Harun Hassan takes notesHarun Hassan takes notes in Bardhere, Somalia in 1993

Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, is one of the most dangerous places in the world, even if you are not a journalist. For those of us working for the BBC – the radio station that everyone listens to and respects – it is especially precarious. It is an everyday occurrence to see herdsmen with small transistor radios following the daily 90-minute Somali transmission from the BBC World Service. The BBC is so influential that when foreign relief agencies or diplomats want something to happen in Somalia, they need to get BBC journalists involved first.

As a young Somali man, it was a dream come true to work for such an institution. When I accepted a job from the BBC, I had already been working for the American news agency, Associated Press for some time. My salary was about £2,000 per month. I was famous – and by local standards – I was living a life of luxury.

But as a journalist, I was a constant target for the local warlords and their militias. My reports could never please every rival faction in the city, and most of my income was spent on security to protect myself. I had three bodyguards with me whenever I was reporting, and several hiding places. I could never sleep in my own home.

On one occasion, I had to stay inside for a whole month to avoid being snatched from the streets by the militias of one of Mogadishu’s most powerful warlords, Hussein Aidid.

Hiding from Hussein Aidid

It all started on 3 September 1996 when I assisted a BBC television crew, led by the BBC’s Foreign Affairs editor, John Simpson. He had come to Mogadishu to film a documentary about ‘the ordinary life of a militiaman’. We decided the best location for shooting was the border that divides the city into north and south, known as the Green Line. This was the frontline of a bloody, four-month long battle in 1991-92.

As we were filming, heavily-armed militiamen surrounded us. They only hesitated to shoot because we had our own security guards. Hussein Aidid was infuriated because someone had told him that the BBC had hired militiamen from the north and south to stage a fake war along the Green Line in order to show that there was ‘no peace in Somalia’.

Aidid’s men confiscated the tape and threatened us with more brutal treatment. John Simpson and his team left the country immediately. I stayed, since I did not have the necessary travel arrangements. Irritated even more by the unauthorised departure of the “foreigners”, reliable sources told me that Aidid had ordered my arrest.

It was time to lie low. At the end of a month’s hiding, I left for neighbouring Kenya. My BBC bosses advised me to take a temporary break.

The inauguration of the self-styled government of General Aidid, 1993

No censor, but the gun-man

In Somalia, journalists are free from state-sponsored censorship because there is no state. Instead, an array of political and clan groups fight over who should govern the country. When the civil war broke out in 1991, which led to the fall of President Mohamed Siad Barre, there were only six main factions. Today, there are more than fifty warring parties, due to endless fragmentations within formerly united factions.

As a journalist, you try to be objective but you also do not want to die at the hands of warlords and their militias. In this regard, I could not report the facts all the time.

For instance, I did not report who and which faction fired the shots that killed General Mohamed Farah Aidid, Somalia’s notorious clan leader and at one time America’s public enemy number one.

The general was fatally wounded on 24 July 1996 in a battle between his forces and a coalition of militias in South Mogadishu. But it is widely believed that the militias involved in the fighting were loyal to his former financier and right-hand man, Osman Ali Atto – who was friendly with the Americans. Atto led a splinter group of General Aidid’s Somali National Alliance (SNA), and never admitted to anything, because he did not want to break ranks and be linked with the death of a close relative in clan genealogy.

Some local journalists were even reluctant to link General Aidid’s death to a gunshot wound, because his home camp had attributed it to a heart attack so as not to upset and demoralise their followers.

The cost of a title

Another merciless challenge in reporting was what title to attribute to rival warlords who each claimed to be legitimate leaders of Somalia. In June 1995, General Aidid formed a government, which did not have the support of his main rival Ali Mahdi. In 1991 some other factions had elected Mahdi as president.

Each man wanted the media to recognize him as the legitimate head of state. Journalistically, we should have referred to them as ‘self-styled governments’. But we stopped doing that when the Reuters stringer, Aden Ali, was kidnapped and detained by General Aidid’s faction, for using the expression in one of his reports.

We changed tactics slightly by labelling them either, “the government of General Aidid” or “the government of Ali Mahdi”. Still, there was no leeway. You would hear each of them complaining: “This is not General Aidid’s or Ali Mahdi’s government it is the Somali people’s government!” They never said which Somali people.

They never mention me, and what they say is not flattering

For most warlords, as for dictators, things are totally contradictory when it comes to what they think of the media – on the one hand they desperately want us to report their activities, on the other they believe we are spies and traitors. They want the media to publicise every word they utter. But not everything warlords say is air-able, and certainly our stories were not tailored to suit them. Even when we did air what they said they would often not be happy with it. Reporting for the BBC, it was rare that a transmission would go on air without someone complaining about it immediately afterwards.

I once met a faction leader who complained that he never heard his name mentioned on the BBC. Another was insulted when he failed to make it to one of the peace talks and presumed he had not been invited because the media did not recognise him as a leader of a faction. “I am suffering from political deflation because the BBC publicises some politicians more than others,” he moaned to me. I met another clan leader who asked: “Why is my name always mentioned after my rival’s?” And just to add to the confusion, one local journalist said he received the most complaints from the warlord whom he featured above all others in his reports. There was simply no easy way out.

Warlords and their factions regard independent journalists – those who don’t work for them – as spies, evil-tellers, pessimists, enemies, trouble-seekers, mercenaries, traitors. The faction-run radio stations continually propagate hatred for independent journalists and air messages encouraging their militias to harm those they call, “the foreign manipulated elements”.

The Somali independent press; A4 paper and a stick of glue

Harun Hassan and the chief editor of Qaran at the newspapers headquarters in Mogadishu, 1991
Somalia was ruled by Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime for twenty-one years from 1969. The first independent media ever to exist in the country appeared when the regime fell in January 1991. Only eighteen days after the downfall of Barre, over 70 newspapers had registered their business names. This was just one indication that the public was thirsty for free speech. Today, unfortunately, because of financial difficulties and security reasons, most of these papers have ceased to exist.

My university studies were interrupted by the breakout of civil war in 1991. I joined a group of Somali journalists in the launch of a new newspaper. At the time, launching a newspaper in Mogadishu was difficult, but not impossible. We did not bother with sophisticated machinery like the offset machines they have at the Washington Post or the Guardian. What we could afford and all we needed for our printing and montage operations was: one duplication machine (Gestetner), one electronic stencil cutter machine, one IBM typewriter, stacks of white A4 sheets of paper, a stapler, a stick of glue and a pair of scissors.

To produce an ordinary eight-page Somali newspaper, we did not need to have correspondents in far corners of the world. The easiest pages to write were the international affairs page and the religious part. For the first, one of us listened to the BBC, VOA or CNN to get stories about the Middle East or the war in West Africa. For the second, we would find a religious scholar to give a lecture. Another three pages were filled with arts and literature, editorials, views, adverts, social commentary and love letters. This material would normally arrive at the office pretty smoothly.

My moment of truth arrived in March 1997. Mohamed Abdullahi, then head of the BBC Somali Service, faxed me a letter they had received in London from Mogadishu. The letter carried a death threat. Signed by a former captain in the Somali army, it said that I would be hunted down from 11 March, and would suffer the same fate as Ilaria Alpi.

Alpi was an Italian television journalist working for RAI who, along with her Bosnian cameraman, was killed in Mogadishu on 20 March 1994. It is believed she was investigating an arms deal between a Somali warlord and foreign companies. Her assailants have never been found.

Their death marked the beginning of the end for many journalists. I was left with one only chance of survival – fleeing Somalia for London.

Pen in one hand, pistol in the other

The latest journalist to flee Somalia is Mohamed Aden Guled, editor in chief of Xog-Ogal, one of the two biggest papers in Mogadishu. Guled arrived in the UK earlier this year and claimed asylum. “For the first time in many years, I sleep well,” he told me, about his temporary accommodation in north London.

Guled and I were at the centre of one of the most serious assaults on Somali journalists in January 1996. We had travelled to the city of Kismaio, 550 kilometres south of the capital, to cover a tribal meeting. On the way home, we came to a roadblock in the Toyota pickup truck we had hired. As one of our bodyguards tried to move the barricades, gunmen hiding on both sides of the road fired indiscriminately, killing one of our guards. The rest of us escaped unharmed. The militiamen were later identified as being loyal to one of the local warlords who allegedly had been complaining about “one-sided coverage” of events during our stay in the region.

Guled had survived an earlier assassination attempt in 1993, when three armed gunmen surrounded his house in the pre-dawn hours and laid a trap to kill him. The attack was foiled when Guled’s wife awoke to say her morning prayers, spotted the intruders, and stepped back to warn her husband. Guled alerted his bodyguards, confronted the attackers and captured one of them.

The captured gunman admitted having agreed to kill Guled in exchange for six million Somali shillings (then worth $1000), at the request of a man identified as a high ranking official in the Somali National Alliance (SNA). “The man who was sent to kill me is now a good friend of mine,” says Guled.

Guled, myself and many other Somali journalists, used to carry a pistol in one hand and a pen in the other. “But how long could one live under these circumstances?” is Guled’s question – and the answer drove him out of his country.

In the developed world, it may be that the pen is mightier than the sword, or the gun. In Somalia, it is the other way around.

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