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Somali authorities investigate media rights group, freeze its accounts


Saturday April 20, 2024


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Kampala Uganda —Somali authorities should drop all criminal investigations against the Somali Journalists Syndicate and desist from weaponizing the judicial system to obstruct the work of the media rights organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Friday.

Two commercial banks, Premier Bank and Dahabshil Bank International told the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) on April 13 and April 17, respectively, that they had suspended the organization’s accounts on orders from the Banadir Regional Court, whose jurisdiction includes the Somali capital Mogadishu, according to copies of the banks’ emails reviewed by CPJ.

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On April 15, IBS Bank orally informed SJS officials in Mogadishu that it had suspended the organization’s accounts, also citing court orders, according to Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, the syndicate’s secretary general, who spoke to CPJ via email and messaging app.  

Abdalle told CPJ, that as of April 19, SJS and its lawyers have not officially received copies of the court’s suspension orders. However, Abdalle said the organization independently acquired, through its sources, a copy of the court’s directive to Premier Bank. In the April 9 letter, which SJS republished with a statement on April 14, the court said that the suspension order was in response to a report submitted by Somalia’s Office of the Attorney General, alleging that Abdalle and “his media organization used a fake media license to open the account and conduct illegal press activities while the organization named Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) is not registered.” The letter also authorized the attorney general to investigate SJS on these allegations and asked the banks to cooperate with this inquiry.

In an April 16  statement published on Facebook, Somalia’s Office of the Attorney General confirmed that it had submitted a report to the court, reiterated the allegations that SJS registered its accounts with “fake documents,” and said that the organization had breached sections of Somalia’s penal code that criminalize defamation, without specifying whom the organization was accused of defaming. The statement said that the attorney general would file charges against SJS once the investigations were concluded.

“The investigations into the allegations of criminal offenses by SJS are apparent acts of retaliation and the latest attacks on an organization that has been staunchly vocal about Somalia’s poor press freedom record,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator, Muthoki Mumo, in Nairobi. “Somali authorities should stop the legal harassment of the syndicate and reform the country’s laws to scrap criminal defamation, in line with international and regional standards on freedom of expression.”

SJS is under investigation for allegedly breaching sections of the penal code that punish the falsification of documents and certificates with up to 64 months in prison and impose a prison term of up to three years for defamation convictions, according to the statement by the attorney general, which does not state whether any specific SJS official would be criminally liable for these offenses. The organization is also accused of contravening sections of Somalia’s press law that require media outlets and training organizations to register with the ministry of information or face fines and prosecutions.

Abdalle said that the freeze on the SJS bank accounts was already having a “significant impact” on SJS’ work, but the organization remains “committed to advocating for press freedom, the safety of journalists, and human rights.”

He added, “We are actively engaging our legal team to address this matter, but our efforts can only succeed if the rule of law is upheld.”

CPJ has documented previous incidents targeting the organization, including  the arbitrary detention of the Syndicate’s staff, including Abdalle, and the organization’s human rights secretary Mohamed Ibrahim Osman Bulbul. In September 2023, cyberattacks temporarily knocked the organization’s website offline.

The office of the attorney general did not respond to CPJ’s queries sent via email; and Attorney General Sulayman Mohamed Mohamoud did not respond to requests for comment sent via messaging application or answer CPJ’s calls.

In their emails responding to CPJ’s queries, Premier Bank Head of Operations, Mahad Ahmed Mohamed, and Dahabshil Bank International’s Head of Operations, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamoud, declined to comment on the account suspensions.

Mahad said that Premier Bank is restricted from disclosing client information by “strict privacy laws and ethical banking standards.” Mohamed told CPJ to consult the bank’s email to SJS for detailed information.

IBS Bank did not immediately respond to an email from CPJ requesting comment.



 





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