By: Hussein Sheikh-Ali (Damumaye)
Somali society has no experience of living under open pluralistic system creating favourable conditions for the freedom of expression. Unlike the military rule of the October Revolution, the civilian period immediately after independence, there was a thriving and vibrant media activity until it was extinguished by the iron fist of the army, which abolished the constitution and severely curtailed civil liberties. This meant that no independent media were tolerated. Kacaan Diid (anti revolution) was high treason punishable by lengthy imprisonment or worse.
The collapse of the state that followed the overthrow of the regime has witnessed the proliferation of ‘independent’ media organisations throughout the country. But the myriad of the new political actors represented by the warlords in the lawless South or by regional administration in the North and North East soon demanded compliance, or worse, the media outlets themselves merely became mouthpieces for personal or clannish interests. Though, some of them has had lately achieved national appeal.
General perceptions were that the new media simply serve the interests of their proprietors which gave ammunition to those who feared media freedoms; that the media barons were simply advancing their interests at their expense. Journalists and media in general had suffered as a result.
Contemporary media history
What has exacerbated the situation is that the media conflict has external dimensions as Somalia is not an island unto itself. What is relevant here is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which commanded a very large audience since its inauguration before the independence of the Somali Republic. Voice of America has forayed into Somali turf twice, both of which it is important to point out coincided when the stakes were high for US policy in the region. The first venture was the early 1990s with US-led multinational effort to Restore Hope. VOA ceased its broadcast as soon as US troops left the country. The second attempt, which continues to this day, began in February 2007, a month after the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a group which the United States accuses of having links with international terrorist groups, lost control of much of Southern Somalia, which they controlled since mid 2006.
Many people question VOA’s timing, and thereby its objectivity. Fair to say, I think, that VOA’s Somali Service is designed to influence—and perhaps alter—the political, social and cultural discourse in Somalia.
While it’s admirable to have a serious competitor to the BBC’s dominance in the Somali media landscape, the programming at the VOA Somali Service seems to confirm America’s “bad-guy, good-guy” foreign policy. In recent months, the VOA allocated substantial air time for the leadership of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), all the while it cast a shadow of suspicion and irrelevance on opposition groups, be they faith-based or otherwise.
Perhaps this metaphor is better explained in VOA’s 46 other languages, nearly all of which are perceived to be cronies for America’s imperialism around the world.
BBC (Somali Service) itself was not spared of allegations of partiality in the Somali context. But these were levelled against the individuals who run the Somali section, not the institutions itself.. There were instances in the recent past those complaints were filed against these individuals and protests were organised here in the UK. Criticism and scrutiny are essential to enhance the quality of information we require.
The aim of this paper is not to establish or deny the veracity of these allegations, but to simply demonstrate the practice of media in Somalia and public perceptions of it have a lot to be desired for.
It has to be understood that the media is a powerful tool that needs to be used responsibly and with diligence. As long as Somalia remains without central authority that can enforce compliance, it is entirely up to the Somali people to ensure that the media behave in ways that meet universal media standards. As most of the media is privately owned except for the BBC and VOA, they are governed by market forces; supply and demand. Where there is more demand for one good, supply should react. Profit-making enterprises are exceptionally responsive to their customers and thus can be influenced by having other outlets available.
Choice for listeners, readers and viewers stimulates competition among the various media organisations. I want to conclude by making one pertinent observation: that in the Somali context, supply far lags behind than demand with regard to the media.
Hussein Sheikh-Ali (Damumaye) lives in London, U.K.