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Puntland’s Media Poodles Versus Watchdog Media
By Bashir Goth
With the recent decision to suspend the reporters of VOA and ban VOA affiliate FM relay stations from broadcasting in its domain, the Administration of Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland has shown its preference for supine media poodles to objective media watchdog.
It seems Puntland leaders have found great contentment in taking the paternalistic path of feeding their people with government censored information in the fashion of socialist and dictatorial states rather than giving them the choice to make their own judgments through free and diversified media.
What astonishes me is that both the President Abdirahman Faroole and his interior Minister and former rival for the presidency, General Abdillahi Ahmed Jama (Ilka-Jiir) spent quite some time in countries where freedom of speech is guaranteed and that they enjoyed the full privilege of speaking up their mind if they wanted to.
It is equally astounding how African politicians crave for media attention when they are on the road to elections yet make a dramatic turnaround once they get the power. It reminds me of the Somali anecdote of the woman whose camel has lost its balance due to the weight on its back. She made the camel sit down so she could adjust the load. But travelling alone with only her young son, she prayed to the soul of Sheikh Abdulqadir Jilani, the founder of the Qadiri sufi order to which most of Somalis adhere to for help, saying: “Jiilaniyow ii gurmo, O’ Jilani come to my rescue.” When she managed to adjust the load and the camel stood up again and moved around without any problem, her son asked her: “Hooyo, Jiilaani muxuu inoo yahay? Is Jilani related to us?” to which the mother retorted: “waxba inooma aha ee awrkeena uun baan ku kacsanaynay...He is not related to us but we were just using him to help us with our camel.”
I remember when Faroole and Ilka-jiir were running for election; they seemed to be champions for free speech, eager to talk to any media outlet and obviously would not have liked it if the media was banned from talking to them. I spoke to General Ilka-jiir when he was transiting in Dubai on his way to Puntland and he sounded to be a very intelligent and open-minded man; the kind of a man that you thought would think would bring freedom and hope to his people. It is disappointing, however, to see media freedom deteriorate during his reign as Minister of Interior and Faroole as President.
In less than a year of their coming to power, the government has silenced reporters, arrested them, beaten them in courts and even closed stations, the latest of which is the VOA.
To cite some of the known cases, the director of the Somali ETN television based in Bosasso was arrested in March 2009. It was reported that Abdiwali Sheik, the ETN Director, had been detained him from his office.
In Mid July, Puntland police attacked Aweys Sheikh Nur, a local reporter, during a court session, act described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as “utterly unjustified,” and called upon Puntland government to “…punish the guards and ensure that journalists can do their work without fear of being attacked.”
Aslo in June, Puntland’s Minister of Information Deputy Minister Abdishakur Mire Adan acting at the behest of the son of President, Mohamed Abdirahman Farole told Horseed Media to remove a story hinting to a link between Puntland officials and pirates. Horseed Media refused to take the article down as reported by CPJ.
Puntland Journalists Protection (PJP) also reported the detention, arrest and torture of a number of bloggers and conventional journalists.
Puntland officials usually cite these reports as reflecting negatively on Puntland and accuse the reporters of instigating instability in the region. But among the VOA reports that angered the authorities was an interview with a cleric, a member of the anti-Al Qaeda Sufi order known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’ah, who claimed that his group has a presence in Puntland and a report on August 25 of a former governor’s son who killed a man in broad daylight.
The CPJ and other international and local media organizations have denounced these rogue actions by Puntland authorities.
Looking at all these actions, one may wonder why the educated leaders of Puntland who lived in the west and experienced the benefits of media freedom are acting like militia warlords who have more skeletons to hide than truths to share with their people. One thing, however, that Puntland leaders have to know is that it is not only brutal and thuggish to beat arrest or even ban the media but it is also a bad PR for their image and reputation as a responsible government. The best way that any government can challenge any biased reporting if any is not to gag the media but to be honest and transparent with their people, to tell their side of the story and to invite more diversified media to report about truth on the ground. Banning the VOA or any other independent media and relying only on the government’s official media will only create suspicion about the government’s actions and will incite the real media watchdogs to sniff around the lies that the media poodles are trying to bury.
As I was concluding this piece I read that Puntland authorities have permitted VOA to resume its operations. According to statement by the Ministry of Information: “His Excellency, the President of Puntland State, granted the VOA Somali Service to resume its news broadcasting operations in Puntland today as a good gesture to U.S. Ambassador to Kenya H.E. Michael E. Renneberger’s participation at the Puntland Diaspora Forum Conference to be held in the U.S. State of Minnesota, 10 – 12 October 2009.” This is further evidence of the Somali woman’s Jilani story that I related earlier. Puntland Officials need to show a real change of attitude towards media freedom than just cosmetic and self-serving tactics.