By Tom Rhodes, CPJ East Africa Consultant
Somalilandsun – Hubaal, Somaliland’s critical and much-beleaguered daily newspaper, is back on newsstands after a presidential pardon last week. The paper was shuttered on orders of the attorney general in June without explanation.
In April, two gunmen, subsequently identified by authorities as police officers, raided the office of Hubaal and attacked its staff after a series of critical articles accusing the government of nepotism and misuse of office. Editor Hassan Hussein and Managing Director Mohamed Ahmed were both convicted on defamation charges last month and given prison terms. The two journalists were released on bail and are appealing their convictions.
Few publications have faced such an onslaught by authorities in the republic of Somaliland. CPJ spoke to Hassan about his plight and future plans now that the newspaper’s suspension has been lifted. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Rhodes: Hubaal has faced its fair share of harassment from authorities this year. First, there was the attack on your selves and premises in April, then the attorney general order for the paper’s suspension in June, and finally you were both arrested in July on defamation charges. What has caused this crackdown on Hubaal? Are there specific reports you published that may have instigated this?
Hassan Hussein: Well, thanks Tom. As a matter of fact, the harassment, threats and the imprisonment from the government that Hubaal faced this year were, indeed, more than we deserve. Armed assailants attacked us, injuring our chairman, Mohamed Ahmed, and other staff. Our office was raided by anti-terror forces known as the Rapid Response Unit in broad daylight with no arrest warrant, we were suspended by the attorney general and, last, but not least, we never had a chance to defend ourselves before a competent court. These sort of predatory actions have not been witnessed by media outlets in Somaliland since the days of former dictator Siad Barre.
Coming back to your question of what prompted the crackdown against Hubaal Media Network, yes, we published a series of articles exposing corruption, political patronage and abuse of power. … On 24 April, three masked men attacked the Hubaal newspaper facilities and beat the editor. One was captured by the newspaper’s staff and was recognized as a policeman with close ties to the presidential palace
TR: We are very pleased to hear the news that President Ahmed Silyano has provided a presidential pardon and allowed the paper to publish August 18. What do you think prompted this? Is this a sign the government is willing to uphold a free press?
HH: No, I don’t think so. Our release has nothing to do with the government wanting to uphold the freedom of the press. We were provided a presidential pardon after continual local and international support and rallies that condemned our arrest and suspension. We do believe that all, no matter who they are, are obliged to observe the rule of law in Somaliland. The suspension, raid on our offices, arrests, and now presidential pardon – all deviated from the rule of law. As we speak now, after our release, an independent Somaliland scholar and writer has been jailed for simply expressing his opinion in a local newspaper. This happened less than a week after our release. Ironically, the presidential pardon is more of a sign of a misuse of power; that the government is powerful enough to arrest anyone or release anyone at their own discretion.
We capitalize on this opportunity to thank all those who fought for our release in general and the Somaliland citizenry, other media outlets, local journalists, traditional leaders, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Media Legal Defense Initiative, among many other voices outside Somaliland, in particular.
TR: Have you managed to produce any issues since this directive? Will the paper change its editorial style given the suspension?
HH: Yes, we restarted production right after our release with just a one-day interval between the presidential pardon and recommencing publishing. We managed despite our terrible financial situation. In terms of our editorial style, no, we are not planning to abandon our values, no matter what happens to us.
TR: In July you both spent a night in jail on defamation and false publication charges, accusations you plan to appeal. What is the status of this case?
HH: We very much doubt the prospects of a fair court trial for our case, but we’ll be relying on the expert advice of our lawyers and other allies as to the future of that appeal.
TR: It appears there are certain issues the Somaliland authorities do not want covered, especially in terms of foreign relations. In your opinion, what areas are “no-go” areas for Somaliland’s press?
HH: There are many “no-go” zones both internally and externally for the Somaliland press. Even though we believe Somaliland upholds free speech, especially when compared to regional, post-conflict countries, there is still a long way to go for folks in the media sector in Somaliland. Authorities will not accept, for instance, any critiques of their foreign relations, especially if the piece is perceived to either hinder or challenge international recognition. In our case, it was coverage of the Ethiopia-Somaliland relations vis-à-vis the government’s relation with the Arab world and Egypt that partly raised the ire of authorities against us. We’ve also seen that the government does not feel good about any editorial discussing the recently strained relations with Somaliland’s colonial master because of the new influence of Turkey in the Somaliland-Somali dialogue.
TR: During the attack on your premises in April, a senior Somaliland official identified the perpetrators of the attack as police officers. What has happened in this case, have they been taken to court? Charged with anything?
HH: Nothing has happened so far. It was indeed our staff who fought back, caught one of the two perpetrators and handed him to the police. The police said that they will be investigating the matter. To this day, that person is in captivity and had not been charged with anything. We don’t know who the other perpetrator was.
TR: While many local journalists tell me authorities do not follow their own laws while persecuting journalists, they also concede that there is a lot of unprofessional reporting in Somaliland that may provoke the government into cracking down on the press. Would you agree with this sentiment?
HH: Yes. But we journalists should also understand that the ‘status quo’ benefits the government. Leaving the media sector unprofessional provides authorities an excuse to silence us. Authorities should also bear in mind that upholding a free press is key to their democratization efforts. No democracy will be meaningful without a well-regulated and professional media sector. I think we all need to cooperate fully in building a vibrant, democratic Somaliland in which the right to free speech and other human rights are respected and protected.
Tom Rhodes is CPJ’s East Africa consultant, based in Nairobi. Rhodes is a founder of southern Sudan’s first independent newspaper. Follow him on Twitter: @africamedia_CPJ