Hargeisa, 21 July 2009 (Somalilandpress) – Somaliland, two journalists working for Radio Horyaal were arrested on 13 July, for allegedly inciting clan violence, and local independent Horn Cable TV (HCTV) has been banned. The International Press Institute (IPI) is concerned that this signals a media crackdown in the autonomous region of Somalia, in the run-up to presidential elections in September.

On 13 July, Radio Horyaal’s director and news editor, Mohamed Osman Mire and Ahmed Suleyman Dhuhul, were arrested at the radio station in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. The journalists have been refused bail, and are currently being held at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). They are expected to appear in court on 21 July.

The arresting officers reportedly did not have a warrant, and the men have not been charged with any crime – which makes their detention illegal under the Somaliland press law, according to Media Rights Somaliland (MeRiS) director Mukhtar Hassan.

Two days after the arrests, independent broadcaster HCTV was banned in a judgement by Sheik Hussein Warfa Sigad, reversing a decision taken the day before by the Harseiga Regional Court. IPI sources in Hargeisa report that, as of last night, HCTV continued to broadcast despite the ban.

On 14 July, Somaliland’s attorney-general asked that HCTV be shut down for “inciting violence” and “spreading false information.” The request was denied in the first instance and approved on appeal.

Suspicions abound that the arrests and ban are politically motivated. Mukhtar Hassan told IPI: “Many people, including opposition parties, are saying this is a sign that the government would like to suppress independent media before the September elections.”

“The arrests of Radio Horyaal’s director and news editor and the ban on Horn Cable TV are a blatant attempt by the Somaliland authorities to consolidate control of their public image in the weeks prior to the election,” said IPI Director David Dadge.

“The government of Somaliland must immediately release Mohamed Osman Mire and Ahmed Suleyman Dhuhul and lift the ban on HCTV. When the media reports news it is fulfilling its public interest duty, even if the news is embarrassing for the president and the government.”

The arrest of Radio Horyaal’s journalists and the ban on HCTV came after the broadcasters covered incidents relating to clan violence on the border between the Gabiley and Awdal provinces in west Somaliland.

On 10 July, 25 elders from Gabiley were invited by President Dahir Rayale Kahin to the presidential palace to discuss an ongoing dispute between clans in Gabiley and Awdal – where the president’s home is. The elders were reportedly unhappy that a June ruling made by the Guurti (upper house), giving their clan certain land rights, had not yet been implemented by the President.
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The session reportedly ended in dispute, and inter-clan violence broke out again the next day.

Police arrested Mire and Dhuhul because Radio Horyaal’s coverage of the meeting allegedly misrepresented events and incited the violence, the police chief commander told Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA) representatives on 14 July. But SOLJA’s Ahmed Mohamed Omar told IPI that Radio Horyaal had reported only that there “was no positive conclusion” to the meeting.

The attorney general, in turn, accused HCTV of having incited further bloodshed through its 11 July programming, which showed footage of that day’s violence between clan members.

Meanwhile, President Rayale’s office last Wednesday circulated a statement urging caution when reporting on the clan conflict. The statement accused some media of inciting violence and said that the sources behind media reporting on the conflict may be investigated.

Somaliland is a breakaway territory of Somalia, on the coast of the Gulf of Aden. It declared independence after the overthrow of Somali dictator Siad Barre in 1991 but its independence is recognized by neither Somalia nor the international community.

Somalia remains a notoriously dangerous place for journalists. According to IPI’s Death Watch, 18 journalists have been killed in the country since 2005. Several have been kidnapped or imprisoned. Among the journalists still being held are Canadian freelance reporter Amanda Lindhout and Australian freelance photojournalist Nigel Brennan, who were taken hostage in August 2008.

On 15 July, security guards in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region within Somalia, reportedly beat up Aweys Sheikh Nur, a reporter with Netherlands-based Horseed Media. According to sources, the guards attacked Nur with the butts of their AK-47 rifles after he took pictures inside a courtroom in the port city of Bosaso.

On 14 July, two French security agents reportedly posing as journalists were kidnapped from their Mogadishu hotel. Although IPI condemns the kidnapping, it is concerned at the reports that the men were pretending to be journalists.

“While the two hostages should be released immediately, it is unfortunate that they chose to pose as journalists. In a country where the lives of journalists are routinely at risk, actions such as this undermine the credibility of the profession and expose reporters to unnecessary risk,” said IPI Director David Dadge.