Award-winning HornAfrik radio service shut by Ethiopian-backed government
January 16, 2007
Somalia’s Ethiopian-backed transitional government shut down four broadcasters yesterday, including a major network founded by three Somali-born Canadians, who were trying to help rebuild their violence-ravaged homeland.
“At about 1 p.m. we got a letter instructing us to close the station,” said Ali Iman Sharmarke, a managing partner of the popular HornAfrik radio and television network. “We were surprised, because we thought the media could relax once the Islamists lost control.”
Sharmarke, Mohamed Elmi and Ahmed Abdisalam Adan, all Somali refugees with comfortable professional careers in Ottawa, returned to Somalia in 1999 and founded HornAfrik, the country’s first non-partisan, independent broadcaster. It quickly built up a large and enthusiastic audience for its network of seven radio stations, an Internet website and satellite television link.
The network, which offered talk, news and music programs, was the winner of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s 2002 International Press Freedom Award for its courage in facing down threats and intimidation in an environment of extreme violence.
CJFE executive director Anne Game said the new restrictions on HornAfrik and others – including Al Jazeera – “are being made under the guise of national security. Somalia’s clampdown on its broadcasters is alarming and closes off one of the only independent news sources accessible to the people of Mogadishu.”
The broadcasters have been ordered to appear before the national security agency, which is struggling to maintain order as pockets of resistance continue attacks on the Ethiopians, and gun battles flare between criminal gangs and militias roaming the streets.
The shutdowns came three weeks after Ethiopian forces fought their way into Mogadishu, ousting the hardline Union of Islamic Courts which had controlled much of the country – and installing a transitional government that had failed to take power for the past two years.
Government spokesperson Abduraman Dinari told a local radio station that the media were “instigating violence,” according to a report from Agence France-Presse.
But another partner in HornAfrik, Mohamed Elmi, said the government “doesn’t want free media that really give people the real information. They want distorted information.”
He said in a phone interview from Ottawa, “Some of the things I was hearing are that they don’t want us to say the Ethiopian armies are supporting the government. They don’t want our news … on who was searched, or who collected weapons, or any other activity the Ethiopian army is doing.”
Sharmarke, who is in Mogadishu but also has a family in Ottawa, said the situation in the Somali capital was chaotic, but not as bloody as in the past, when warlords fought each other and thousands of people were slaughtered.
“When I arrived here in 1999 it was like walking into hell,” he said in a phone interview. “We called ourselves media, but we were frontline workers. For seven years we were under fire constantly. Now, this seems like business as usual.”
The network was set up with funds from Somali business people.
Sharmarke said that HornAfrik – Mogadishu’s fifth largest employer, with 142 employees – was waiting to see what would happen next.
“Nobody can explain why (the transitional government) needs martial law,” he said.
“What they need is reconciliation, after chasing each other around with guns for so many years.”
But, he said, “last night one of my employees had a very close call, caught in the crossfire between the Ethiopians and some others. It’s very disturbing, because we hoped that real government had finally come to Mogadishu.”
In 1991 the socialist government of President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by opposing clans, who fought each other for nearly a decade, making Somalia one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world.
During the period of chaos, Sharmarke says, two of their employees were killed. The station came under attack a number of times, and some employees were temporarily jailed.
A 2004 peace deal set up a new Somali government, but they failed to take power in Mogadishu. It left the way open for the rise of Islamists, who ousted the feuding warlords in June 2006, promising law and order, and cracking down on the media with draconian rules that censured “foreign culture or bad behaviour.”
During their regime, HornAfrik was also temporarily shut down.
“Somalis don’t support terrorism,” said Sharmarke. “They just want law and order and stability, and a healthy life for their children.”