Abdulaziz Billow, a TV correspondent for China Global Television Network based in Mogadishu, is accustomed to being shot at by government soldiers and police trying to disperse reporters when he goes to cover al-Shabab blast sites in Somalia.
“The police shoot at journalists all the time,” he told the Mail & Guardian. He never expected, however, that a government official would assault him and his cameraman at an evening Independence Day reception at the prime minister’s residence. He has been threatened and harrassed “time and again” by the government, but Billow told the M&G that the manhandling at the celebration was “on another level.”
Billow’s account is echoed by the findings of a just-released Amnesty International report titled, We Live in Perpetual Fear, a 52-page document comprising more than 70 interviews that accuses the sitting Somali government of quashing overall freedom of expression, both in person and on the internet.
So extreme have these threats to free expression become that the only free ambulance service in the capital, Aamin Ambulance, was told it cannot publicly report civilian casualty figures after it arrived at the scene of al-Shabab attacks. Public figures critical of the administration on social media will be reported as “terrorists” and their accounts deactivated.
The number of journalists being killed have gone down since President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (better known as Farmajoo) took office in 2017, but general freedom of expression has greatly declined, said Abdalle Ali Mumin, a journalist who works with The Guardian, The New Humanitarian and other outlets, and who co-founded the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) last year. Mumin says that “the barrage of attacks against the press, predominantly perpetrated by state actors, was one key reason the SJS was formed in May 2019”.
The Amnesty International report paints a picture of a paranoid, aggressive administration, brutally sensitive to any news that it would interpret as diminishing its reputation at home or abroad. The report documents both physical — even fatal — intimidation and bribes by the government and its supporters. “They want to contain the information that is coming out,” Billow said.
At the time of publication neither the office of the president nor the office of the prime minister responded to emails from the M&G requesting responses on the report.
Threats and intimidation
Billow had attended the June 30 Independence Day event to speak to young people. As of the next day — July 1 2019 — Somalia had been independent for 59 years. For the first 30 years, the country experienced varying levels of peace. A civil war that shattered the state ruined any remnant of that in 1991. Billow’s plan was to talk to people younger than 30 years old at the event and and gain their perspectives on the state of the country, as well as their hopes for the future.
Billow recalled that he had just finished an interview with a woman decked out in Somali flags when Abdirahman Dirie, the director of the prime minister’s residence, demanded that the cameraman tape him reading the address. But Billow already had a reporting plan, “I told him ‘I’m not here to record someone giving a speech, it’s easier to get the speech from the prime minister’s communication department.” In response, Dirie said he was being disrespected and embarrassed. He got so angry that he grabbed at Billow’s ear, shoulder and hand, knocking over the camera. Billow’s colleague managed to grab it before it hit the ground.
Billow said he and the cameraman, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed, were removed from the event after midnight, on Independence Day morning. As he left, he told the soldiers who had evicted them, “Remember my name. Remember my face. Tomorrow when this story comes up don’t say you aren’t involved.”
He decided to wait until nighttime, once the celebrations would have died down, to make a public statement about what happened. At 9.53pm, Billow tweeted about what happened to thousands of followers, including the hashtag, #SomaliaAt59. After his statement, Billow was slammed with calls from random numbers across Europe and Africa telling him that he was “shaming” the government and that he “deserved whatever happened to him”. He was similarly overwhelmed by those who were getting in touch to express their concern for his safety. Billow says very senior officials at the prime minister’s office contacted him and told him to delete his tweets. He refused.
On the eve of 1st July, the director of social affairs at the office of @SomaliPM physical assaulted me and my cameraman while covering Independence Day celebrations. Uniformed personnel were used to eject us from the facility while gathering public views on #SomaliaAt59
— Abdulaziz Billow Ali (@AbdulBillowAli) July 1, 2019
Although he outwardly remained steadfast, Billow said he was scared. “When you’re shaming the government and you’re a journalist, you’re telling a trigger-happy soldier that he can kill you at any time,” he said.