Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Sends an Open Letter to the ‘President of the Republic of Somaliland’

His Excellency Muse Bihi Abdi
President of the Republic of Somaliland
The Presidential Office
Road Number 1
Hargeisa, Somaliland

Hand-delivered to the Presidential Office by Human Rights Center, Somaliland, for CPJ.

February 26, 2018

Dear President Muse Bihi Abdi,

We at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom organization, urge your administration to free imprisoned journalists and ensure that all news outlets can publish freely.

You committed to uphold Somaliland’s democratic ideals in your November 2017 op-ed in the Financial Times, and Somaliland’s constitution enshrines the freedom of the press as an essential part of the country’s democracy. However, your government has fallen short in its support for press freedom: our research shows that working conditions for journalists have deteriorated in Somaliland. State authorities use repressive regulations to muzzle the press, arrest journalists, and shutter media outlets.

At least six journalists were detained in connection with their work since your inauguration as president in December, according to CPJ research. While most of the journalists detained were released, arresting journalists on charges such as criminal defamation and “fake news” can intimidate them into self-censorship, limiting the public’s information and undermining democracy.

We have included information from CPJ’s research on several concerning arrests and sentences below:

  • Mohamed Aabi Digale, Hargeisa bureau chief for Universal TV, was arrested February 17 in connection with one of the station’s recent stories, and has since beendetained without charge. On February 19, police remanded him for seven more days, pending investigations and on February 26, a regional court denied him bail, according to the local advocacy group Human Rights Center.
  • Mohamed Abdilaahi Dabshid and Ahmed Dirie Liltire were sentenced to two years in prison in Borama on charges of carrying out propaganda against the state. They were released on appeal on February 7 after their sentences were reduced and converted to fines.
  • Mohamed Adan Dirir was sentenced in October 2017, to 18 months in prison on charges of criminal defamation and writing “false news.” He was sentenced in a one-day trial; neither his family nor his lawyer were informed of the trial date.
  • Ahmed Sa’ed and Abdirahman Mohamed Ege were detained for five days in Berbera before being charged for defamation in connection with their coverage of alleged misuse of public property. Their seven-month jail terms were converted into a US$140 fines.

Courts and the office of the attorney general have ordered newspapers to cease publication. The courts have also asked telecom companies to block certain news websites. While the shuttering of some media outlets predates your presidency, we urge you to lift immediately all bans and put in place safeguards to ensure that your government does not take similar actions against the press in the future.

Accusations of “false news” and improper registration have been used to shutter and block online media outlets. Some illustrative examples are outlined below:

  • Haatuf newspaper and its sister publication Somaliland Times have not gone to press since 2014 when they were suspended from publication by a court order amid allegations of publishing false news, according to media reports and CPJ research.
  • The attorney general ordered Hubsad and Codka Shacabka to stop printing in 2016, alleging that the newspapers were improperly registered, according to CPJ research. The newspapers remain off the streets, according to the local advocacy group Human Rights Center.
  • A Hargeisa court blocked five news websites in Somaliland in July 2017 after the government accused them of disseminating false news, according to CPJ research. Four of the websites remain banned, according to Human Rights Center in Somaliland.
  • During the election, when citizens most needed access to information, internet companies blocked more than a dozen social media websites on the order of the electoral commission which argued that it was fighting “fake news”, according to media reports and CPJ research.

We are also concerned by the conduct of public officials. Your newly appointed information minister recently stated that the government would only communicate through state-owned media. Such a policy would stifle the independent press. We urge your government to ensure that both private and state-owned media have access to public information.

The attorney general, who also served under the previous administration, on at least two occasions asked courts to retry journalists who were acquitted, according to media reports and CPJ research. Most notably, after a lower court dismissed an incitement case against Ahmed Mouse Sakaaro, the attorney general challenged this decision in an appeals court. The appeals court sided with the official, ordering a retrial in Ahmed’s case, according to media reports.

We are committed to working with you in helping to create an environment conducive to press freedom in Somaliland. We are available to meet you or a representative of your government at your convenience to elaborate on our recommendations. We look forward to your response.

Yours Sincerely,

Angela Quintal
Africa Program Coordinator

cc: Abdurrahman Abdullahi Farah, Somaliland Information Minister
Adam Haji Ali, Somaliland Chief Justice
Hasan Ahmed Hasan, Somaliland Attorney General

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