By Peter Townson
Despite escaping their conflict-ravaged country and resettling in the Kenyan suburb of Eastleigh, also known as, ‘Little Mogadishu’, Somali journalists in exile face a raft of threats and dangers which make daily life unimaginably difficult. Doha Centre for Media Freedom recently met with a number of exiled Somali journalists in Nairobi to find out about their experiences and daily lives.
Somali exiled journalists such as Ubah Abdinor face a huge number of difficulties trying to get by in Nairobi
Comprising the largest group of exiled journalists in Kenya, Somali media workers face a multitude of difficulties in their quest to build a new life in their adopted country.
Because of political sensitivities between their country and Kenya and the threats that many journalists face in Somalia – the deadliest nation in the world for journalists in 2012, with the exception of Syria – many exiled journalists have found themselves in a new and intimidating city without the required paperwork to enable them to establish a sustainable life.
After meeting the journalists in Nairobi, it becomes abundantly clear that despite their attempts to flee persecution and danger at home, issues which plagued their lives in Somalia remain a grave concern in their adopted homeland, and despite their shared experiences and difficulties, tribal and political issues continue to result in divisions within the wider exiled community.
Lives thrown into chaos
Mohamed Garane, 29 who works for the National Union of Somali Journalists in Kenya, came to Nairobi in 2010 after being forced from Somalia where he worked for Horn Afrique radio station. He is one of the most prominent exiled journalists in Kenya and helps to welcome his fellow media workers when they find themselves stranded away from home.
He was arrested three times during his work in Somalia, and was pressurised and harassed by members of Al Shabaab. After receiving threats against his life, he decided to flee to Nairobi.
“I liked this profession ever since I was young, it was my passion – it is really in my blood and in my veins,” he tells DCMF, reminiscing about his early years listening to the BBC World Service with his grandfather.
During a meeting with some 40 media workers from Somalia, they explain how much Garane’s efforts have helped to bring an important element of stability to lives which have been thrown into chaos.
Unlike their counterparts in Kenya, many journalists from Somalia do not speak English and are therefore at a major disadvantage. Having people like Garane and his colleagues available to assist and coordinate medical and legal assistance with international groups has proven to be a major help for exiled Somalis.
Journalism in Somalia: a “suicide mission”
“I have never thought about stopping journalism,” Garane says, “even though I do have threats coming to me from all around.” He explained that he had recently received text messages threatening his life and detailing his movements around his mosque.
While he is one of the more prominent members of the community, Garane’s experience is far from unique. His colleagues continue to be targeted by Al Shabaab, even though they have fled Somalia.
It is obvious that the threat of the extremist group extends far beyond Somalia’s borders, and that members of the media have regularly been targeted even after relocating to Nairobi.
“I am living like a scapegoat and Kenyan soldiers can arrest me at any time and I don’t have any legal documents to help me do anything,” another journalist told DCMF, while his colleague noted: “It is a suicide mission to be a journalist in Somalia where there is no freedom of expression – that is why we came here for help.”
Challenges facing female journalists
The situation does not get any better for female Somali journalists. On top of the difficulties faced by the rest of the exiled community, female journalists confront the added struggle of overcoming cultural and religious taboos.
Ubah Dahir Osman fled Mogadishu after receiving threats from Al Shabaab. She now shares an appartment with five other women and struggles to make her rent on a monthly basis.
She has recently received a number of threatening text messages, leaving her fearing for her life and without anywhere to turn for help.
Her colleague, Ubah Abdinor, was forced from Somalia after being arrested on three separate occasions. She also suffered three attacks at the hands of Al Shabaab and had to be smuggled into Kenya twice after initially being deported.
Describing the threats she has received as “uncountable,” she says that “being a Somali journalist in exile is hell.”
“We are vulnerable in every way – being a journalist and a woman is very difficult,” she notes, adding that certain taboos and cultural issues make her living arrangements even more challenging.
Ubah Abdiw Adood lives in Eastleigh with her brother, who is suffering from a number of psychiatric issues and is unable to work. She lives in terrible conditions, yet she can barely afford her rent, meaning that the threat of eviction constantly looms.
She recalls how she was attacked by police during a raid before the 2013 presidential elections on her appartment block, meaning that she has her own medical issues to deal with. Like the other Ubahs, a number of social and cultural problems have added to her woes, leaving her in a truly dire situation.
These women, and countless others in similar tragic circumstances, struggle to get through their daily lives, and all live in fear of what might await them in the future.
Surprisingly enough, one of the challenges facing Somali journalists in exile could be described as being self-imposed. As opposed to forming a united front and standing in solidarity with other journalists from their country, some have chosen to segregate themselves along tribal and political lines.
Vying for attention from international organisations to assist their causes, journalists have established a large number of different organisations, and the different groups do not always see eye-to-eye.
“The divisions are there, as they have ever been in the Somali government – the media is no different,” noted Garane, adding “there is a background of clan issues.”
Garane claimed that tribalism and corruption had infiltrated a previous formed entity to support exiled journalists, and the ensuing mistrust has made it impossible for all Somali journalists to be represented under one group.
“It would help, but we have missed that one, we are lacking,” he said.
While there are divisions within the group, something which unites Somali exiled journalists is their incredible commitment to their work and their determination to improve their situation.
Many have taken up studies during their time in exile, and there is a thriving media community which has developed out of the most difficult of circumstances.
Star FM is a radio station based in Eastleigh, offering daily broadcasts in Somali (and one hour of Swahili programming), which is particularly popular throughout the community and offers extensive coverage across Kenya. The station also provides journalists with the opportunity to work on a freelance basis, and assists them with training and other needs.
Co-chairman of the station, Hajji Mohamud explained that the station also has a training centre to help develop the capacity of exiled journalists who find themselves without employment when they arrive in Kenya.
There are other radio and television stations providing a similar service in Eastleigh, helping those many thousands of Somalis who have fled the country to feel a bit more at home, and providing journalists with the opportunities to continue working and developing their professional capacity.
“Nowhere to run”
Despite the commitment to journalism and to bettering themselves, there is an underlying sense of hopelessness throughout the Somali exiled journalist community. They have no idea if and when they will get the paperwork they require to be employed, and many are faced with the more pressing issue of desperately trying to secure their next meal.
Many are wary of journalist impersonators negatively affecting them as a group, and there is a need to verify that people are who they say they are. Furthermore, journalists need to ensure that they follow codes of ethics and work responsibly to try and improve the position of the industry as a whole in Somalia.
As one female journalist pointed out: “We need to be accountable in our work and we need to accept responsibility for our work. It is too easy to be a journalist – we need better education.”
Some will have the opportunity to pursue education in their new homes. But for the majority, studying is a highly desirable but equally highly unlikely proposition.
The reality is that exiled Somali journalists flee a life of danger and fear and find themselves faring hardly any better.
As another journalist explained: “Abroad trouble, and inside Somalia, trouble – there is nowhere to run.”