By Darcy SpragueFlag_of_Somalia.svg


Somalia has had a long and violent history since its early beginnings as a trade settlement. Its history is characterized by division and government failures. Due to this, human rights have been neglected and individual freedoms left unprotected.

Somalis are known for their clannish behavior.[1] In the early days the population was divided into clans based on family. Now, the clans are larger and dependent of religious belief and geographic location.1

Most Somalis are nomadic farmers constantly in search of water and food for their livestock. Only a small percentage of the population remain in stationary jobs.[2] The common tongue is Af-Maymay, a dialect derived from an early Ethiopian language.2

Somalia has a low literacy rate perhaps because the language was only officially written in 1970.3 The postal service was not established until 2014. Radio and TV are more common than newspapers, due to the literacy issue. Many of the media organizations are considered biased, because they associate or are forced to work for a clan or political faction. Many Somalis rely on international news organizations such as BBC. Despite the issues in media, BBC once said that Somalia was the most media literate society in Africa, because the ability to collect information has been crucial for survival.[3]

Historical background

Somalia, located on the Horn of Africa, was first inhabited by Arab and Palestinian traders who were passing through the area. In the Middle Ages there were records of small, nomadic tribes living in Somalia.[4]

In the late 1800s, European nations began colonizing parts of Somalia in order to protect their trade interests among rising tensions between neighboring African states.[5] By the end of World War II British Somaliland and Italian Somalia were on a path to unification and independence.[6] The French colonies did not experience much change directly after the war, but due to the vast political change in British Somaliland and Italian Somalia the colonies eventually sought out the same freedoms.7

In 1963, the recently unified Somali Republic began fighting Ethiopia and Kenya.[7]  In 1969, the state experiences a military coup and becomes the socialist Somali Democratic Republic. In 1988, Somali and Ethiopia sign a peace accord and most of the fighting ends.8

By 1991, 70 percent of the countries livestock had been lost, three thousand people were dying daily, 300,000 people had already died and five hundred thousand people had fled due to hunger.[8] The United Nations predicted one-third of the remaining population would die.8

Another coup sprung up and the sitting government was overthrown in Southern Somalia.[9] The government declared the Republic of Somaliland separate from Somalia (the Republic of Somaliland is the territory located at the Northwestern part of Somalia, once the British Somaliland).10

The United Nations sent assistance to the struggling people of Somalia who were starving to death and threatened by violence of the new regime in 1993.[10] Troops from the United States landed in the area ahead of the United Nations peacekeepers. Two United States helicopters were shot down by the rebels. The United States soldiers and hundreds of Somalians were killed. The United States remained on the ground for another year before pulling out their troops. The peacekeepers were forced to leave without providing significant aid10

The warlord responsible for the coup, Mohamad Farah Aideed, died in 1996 and was succeeded by his son, Hussein.10 In 2000, clan leaders met and declared Hussein the president of Somalia. In 2004 another government was installed. In total between 1991 and 2004 there were 14 attempts to install different forms of government.10

In 2004 the government, a president and parliament which remained until 2006 when Islamic terrorism created a clash between a number of warring clans. Ethiopian troops cross the border and helped establish a transitional government within Somalia. They were able to marginally stabilize the country until 2008.10

Despite having destroyed many of the Islamic terrorist groups within Somalia when Ethiopia withdrew their troops in 2009 al-Shabab—an Islamic terrorist organization—was able to gain a foothold in Somalia.10 The United Nations and the United States begun to take action against Somali pirates. They also begun providing aid to the citizens in the form of peacekeeping efforts and food supplies.10

In 2010-2011, a famine killed more than a quarter of a million people.10 Al-Shabab declared allegiance with al-Qaida and the United Nations was forced to withdraw their food support and peace keepers. By 2011, much of the country was declared to be in an official famine by the United Nations.11

Kenya, Ethiopia, the United States, the previously disenfranchised Somali government and the African Union sent aid and soldiers in 2012.10 By August a new parliament was sworn in and most of the major cities were recovered from al-Shabab.10 By October the last strong hold was taken back from al-Shabab.10

Al-Shabab continued to plague the area, committing acts of terrorism in Somalia and Kenya.10 The United States had been providing limited aid.  In February 2016, the African Union agreed to give more money to support Somalia. 10

Due to the Civil War and repeat episodes of famine there were a large number of Somalian refugees. 10 European, North American, Asian and African countries have taken in a large number of Somalian refugees. 10

Free speech

Freedom House ranked Somalia as one of the 12 least free countries in the world in 2015 with a score of 7 out of 7 for poor human rights conditions. [11] Though there is currently an established central government within Somalia, much of the country is effectively ruled by terrorist organizations—namely al-Shabab—and warring clans. The government has long been unstable. Most sources agree that Somalia did not have a stable government between 1991 and 2012. The current government, the Transitional Federal Government, was established in 2012 and remains in power today. The government fled to Kenya for a period during 2014.10 The press has also been highly persecuted.11 Because of these two things, there is a lack of information regarding traditional free speech cases. What is discussed below is a number of limitations placed on freedom of expression by al-Shabab. There are also a number of occurrences worth talking about in Kenya that are expressive of al-Shabab’s limits on free speech.

Prior to the collapse of the government in 1991, freedom of speech was a highly disputed issue. Strict laws allowed the government to execute any they found to be violating speech and expression laws. Following the coup in 1991, speech and press were left unregulated by any form of government.[12] As mentioned above, al-Shabab was persecuting those who voiced opinions contrary to the group’s beliefs. Additionally, the new government, established in 2012, has said they supported free speech and free press, but have not proved it. They have also created a number of laws restricting both speech and press.11

The National Union of Somali Journalist described the state of the media in 2014 as a self-censored.[13] Because of this, news about the human rights conditions within the country were once again silenced.13 The terrorist organization responsible for the media silence is al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab is a Muslim terrorist organization seeking to spread the Islamic faith through violence.[14] Discussing or participating in things viewed as western has been outlawed. For example, al-Shabab does not allow people to play or discuss soccer. People in their control cannot watch movies or use cellphone ring tones. Additionally, men may not stand up for women if the woman is being publically beaten for wear a bra (“deceptive breast”) or else he will go to jail.14

 In her book about Somalia as a failed state, Mary Harper quoted a Somali man as saying “there is no freedom of speech. People cannot say what they want, and they certainly cannot complain about al-Shabab because there are spies everywhere.”[15]

In 2013, al-Shabab banned television in Barawe, a southern Somalia town, in an attempt to restrict freedom of information.[16] Reporters Without Borders writes that the target of this restriction was a TV news station which broadcasted news about regions al-Shabab had been expelled from. In Somalia, the issue of free speech and freedom of expression go hand in hand, because al-Shabab seeks to extinguish citizen knowledge on their failures in order to prevent citizens from speaking about the issue.

In 2014, al-Shabab banned Internet usage in areas they controlled. Reporters Without Borders condemned the action.[17] “By preventing the public from using the Internet in the areas it controls, Al-Shabaab is launching an unprecedented offensive against freedom of information,” Reporters without Borders wrote.17 Though the Somali government has been criticized international for not upholding their promise to protect speech, the government urged telecommunication companies to ignore al-Shabab’s orders regarding shutting down the Internet.[18] “The Somali government strongly condemns such acts which show continued brutality and terrorist tactics of intimidation by trying to ban Somalis from using the Internet,” minister Abdikarim Hussein Guled said in a statement. “Our constitution guarantees freedom of expression and every citizen has the right to access information without fear.”18

In 2014, in response to a law intended to limit media freedom under the guise of regulating the media industry and preventing terrorism National Union of Somali journalists (NUSOJ) expressed “fears that counter-terrorism legislation could be used to justify violations of the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression under the shroud of national security and public order. Without sufficient explanation, phrases like ‘disturb the peace’, ‘jeopardize the safety and security of society’ and ‘create fear in people’s lives’ could be used to suppress freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights,” in their 2014 annual report.18

As of December 2015, al-Shabab had launched three separate attacks killing people who refused or could not repeat verses of the Quran.[19] Over two hundred Christians were killed because they could not or would not repeat the Quran or denounce their religion. On the surface the issue is one about freedom of religion, however, al-Shabab attempts to control religion through limiting and controlling speech.

Freedom of the press

The condition of the media at any given time in Somalia’s history has depended on what organization or government was in charge. The Somali press currently faces violence from extremist groups and legal action or false imprisonment from the government. Many journalists have been killed by al-Shabab and other warring factions. Some have been held hostage. The government has arrested a number of journalists and shut down media outlets.13

Prior to 2006, journalists faced corruption and extortion problems from the warring factions. However, no clan had enough control (and there was no stable government) to efficiently censor the media so journalists have enjoyed safer conditions. By 2006, both the government and terrorist organizations were beginning to stifle presses freedom. That year, a Swedish journalist was killed filming a protest in the capital. A number of local journalists were also arrested or killed.[20]

In 2007, the Somali government at the time, the Transitional Federal Government, imposed a law placing restrictions on journalist’s speech and the images they chose to use.[21] Media organizations and activists groups protested the law. Eight journalist were killed, 53 arrested and 55 fled the country according to the NUSOJ making it the deadliest year for media in the country’s history.[22]

In 2010 al-Shabaab banned music from radio broadcast because it was “un-Islamic.”[23] The group also banned re-broadcasts of BBC productions because there were “against Muslims and Islam.”23

Between 2007 and the start of 2012, 22 media workers were killed.21 In 2011, a convoy of journalists and staff was shot at. One journalist was killed, while one suffered injuries. The attackers were part of the federal military, but were suspended for their actions. Additionally, a radio journalist was shot by federal troops for broadcasting information about Ethiopian troops.21

In 2012, Somalia developed a provisional federal constitution which provided the freedoms of press and speech. However, terrorist groups and warring clans continue to restrict citizen’s ability to speak freely and report.[24] The National Union of Somali Journalists stated in the 2014 annual report that the government was restricting journalists’ ability criticize them through the use of force and intimidation.

At a 2013 United Nations Security Council meeting regarding the protection of journalist in armed conflict Mustafa Haji Abdinur, a Somaili reporter said, “They call me a dead man walking.”25 He said many of his colleagues were killed or had fled. The warring factions often kill journalists as a way to silence them. Kidnapping and extortion are also common.[25]

In 2014, the government banned the discussion of Al-shabab by media. This was soon followed by at least five arrested journalist during numerous raids of media houses. The journalist arrested said they were just trying to provide information to the citizens regarding the terrorist group.[26]

In 2014, Somalia’s Council of Ministers narrowly passed a draft media law presented by the Minister of Information, Mustaf Sheikh Ali Dhuhulow, that would control independent media under the guise of regulation.13 The bill limited the freedoms of media workers. For example, Article 6 established the National Media Council—a media regulatory body dominated by people working for the Minister of Information. The law also required all media to register with the Ministry of Information for an unspecified annual fee. Article 15 establishes a code of ethics based on respect for the “Islamic religion” and “Somalia’s good tradition.” Article 19 prohibits propaganda and libel. Article 24 requires that all media works must be Somali born with either an educational background in media, or three years of experience in the field. Article 25 abolishes the idea of confidentiality, requiring journalist to submit the name of any source, hand over any recorded interviews as demanded by the government and provide the name of all reporters who worked on the article.13 In the same year, an anti-terrorism law was passed, which limited the news organizations from discussing terrorist organizations, even for informational purposes.13

The laws served to give legal backing to media shakedowns that were already happening. For example, journalist Abdiaziz Abdinuur was arrested and charged with false reporting in 2013.[27] He had interviewed a woman who claimed to have been raped by government soldiers. The interview was never published, but he was held for 19 days. His sentence was eventually over thrown.28

In 2015, Somalia’s government required journalist to call members of al Shabab by the acronym “UGUS.”[28] The government renamed the militant group the “UGUS” meaning “the group that massacres the Somali people” in an attempt to stop propaganda from the militant group. However, the result was press censorship.29

In 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Somalia as the number one country for government impunity of people who kill media workers.[29] Somalia replaced Iraq as number one in 2015 due to increasingly strict media censorship laws and continual disregard for the lives of journalists.30

Chris Paterson argued in his book “Journalist and Social Media in Africa” that social media was becoming a journalistic tool throughout Africa, including places like Somalia where traditional journalism was sometimes too dangerous.[30] However, he found the usage of Twitter as a tool was not comparable to that of other nations because the Somali journalist did not have as much freedom to use it.31

The media laws established in 2014 were ratified to strengthen the requirements to be a journalist, a BBC article from 2016 says.[31] Journalist must now possess a degree in journalism, regardless of their experience in the field. This restriction is particularly harsh considering that no university in Somalia offered media degrees during the civil war (1991-2012).  The first group of journalist majors are set to graduate in 2018. Additionally, the law now levies a $1,000-$3,000 fine for any journalist convicted of libel.32

The radio station Radio Shabelle, a Somali radio station, won the Reporters Without Borders press freedom award in 2010.[32] “It recognizes not just our own work but also the courage of all Somali journalists and Somali civil society,” a Radio Shabelle station manager said when receiving the award. “In our country, where chaos reigns and the armed Islamist militias want to silence us, we take great risks to report the news…But we will not be intimidated. We are determined to continue our struggle for independent journalists and respect for human rights.” 33

Radio Shabelle was shut down in 2014 by the government. 19 reporters were arrested. The media outlet was shut down for criticizing the prime mister’s media laws.[33]

In 2016, six men were sentenced to death for killing journalists. This year the government of Somalia has sentenced groups of men to death for killing journalist at least twice.[34] Comparatively, this is the first time in many years the Somalia government is taking action against the killers. The CPJ found that of the 59 journalists killed since 1992, 39 happened with complete impunity.[35]

It is worth noting that there are two regions of Somalia that have their own government: Somaliland and Puntland. Somaliland considers itself entirely independent, while Puntland is a self-governing state of Somalia. Both of these territories enjoy slightly freer press, due to their relative political stability.13

Critical comparison

Somalia and the United States share very few similarities in terms of their media. The United States has a free press system, where Somalia’s press is not free.34,[36]

Since 2007 there have been three press related murders in the United States, which are all related to disgruntled ex-workers.[37] Forty-five journalists were killed in Somalia, many by people trying to silence them.[38]

In Somalia, it is easy for the government prosecute journalists for liable and the fines are preset and heavy.13 The United States has established that public figures, such as media figures, must prove intentional harm on the media’s part.[39]

The United States government does not censor speech because they find it to be offensive in most circumstances.  For example, in Phelps v. Synder the court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church was entitled to express their ideas, though disagreeable.[40] In 2014 the Somalia government ruled that the press could not discuss al-Shabab, even in an informative way.13

Freedom of speech and press is guaranteed in the Constitution in both the United States and Somalia, though many criticize the Somalia government for not living up to its promises.13 

The issues of free press and speech between the two countries is very different because of each countries’ government, political situation and what is at stake in terms of possible punishment. While the United States has had a long established media due to the stability of the government, Somalia has only recently been developing a media. The social and political climate in Somalia is so turbulent that journalists are constantly in danger. In the United States reporters are not killed by the government, however, in Somalia they sometimes are.21


The state of the government and the terrorist groups in Somalia have been attempting to censor journalists around the country. Despite a resilient media, many claim there has been an effective censorship for a number of years.13 It is difficult to discuss the issues of free speech among the civilian population, perhaps because the media does not have freedom to report on the issue, or perhaps because the terrorist organizations and government are not stabilized enough to be concerned with individual free speech. Until the government is stabilized, many fear that there will not be a road to security for the press.13

[1] Soderlund, Walter C., E. Donald Briggs, Kai Hilderbrandt, and Salam Sidahmed. 2008. Humanitarian Crises and Intervention Reassesing the Impact of Mass Media. Sterling: Kumarian Press. 44-45

[2] Lewis, I.M. 2002. A Modern History of the Somali. Oxford: James Curry Ltd. 2-3

[3] 2012. “Somalia Media and Telecom Landscape.” Infoasaid.

[4] Ibid., 1

[5] Ibid., 28

[6] Lewis, I.M. 2002. A Modern History of the Somali. Oxford: James Curry Ltd. 117-138

[7] Lewis, Loan. 2008. Understanding Somalia and Somaliland. New York: Columbia University Press. 125-126

[8] Soderlund, Walter C., E. Donald Briggs, Kai Hilderbrandt, and Salam Sidahmed. 2008. Humanitarian Crises and Intervention Reassesing the Impact of Mass Media. Sterling: Kumarian Press.

[9] Lewis, Loan. 2008. Understanding Somalia and Somaliland. New York: Columbia University Press. 126-127

[10] BBC News. 2016. “Somalia Profile-Timeline.” BBC.

[11] 2015. “Freedom in the World 2015.” Freedom House. 20

[12] Lesson, Peter. 2014. Anarcy Unbound. New York: Cambridge University Press. 182

[13] National Union of Somali Journalist. 2014. “Freedom at Risk in Somalia.” Natoin Union of Somali Journalist.

[14] Daniels, Christopher. 2012. Somali Piracy and Terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. 57-67

[15] Harper, Mary. 2012. “Getting Somalia Wrong : Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State.” London: Zed Books. 72

[16] 2013. “Al-Shabaab bans TV in southern town of Barawe.” Reporters without Borders.

[17] “Al-Shabaab bans Internet in areas it controls.” Reporters without Borders. 2014

[18] Karimi, Faith. “Somalia warns telecom companies not to comply with Al-Shabaab Internet ban.” CNN. 2014

[19] Ramos, Annie Rose. 2015. “Muslims shield Christians when Al-Shabaab attacks bus in Kenya.” CNN.

[20] 2006. “Somalia.” Freedom House

[21] 2012. “Somalia.” Freedom House

[22] 2008. “Somalia.” Freedom House

[23] 2010. “Music banned from radio in Somalia.” Index on Censorship.

[24] 2015. “Somalia.” Freedom House.

[25] Simon, Joel. 2014. The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom. New York: Colombia University Press. 150

[26] 2014. “Security agency arrests journalists, closes radio stations after banning coverage of Al-Shabaab.” Reporters without Borders.

[27] 2014. “Somalia.” Reporters without Borders.

[28] Hayden, Sally. 2015. “Somali Government Orders Journalists to Rename Militant Group.” Vice news.

[29] “CPJ’s 2015 Global Impunity Index spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free.” Committee to Protect Journalist

[30] Paterson, Chris. 2015. “Journalist and Social Media in Africa.” New York: Routledge.

[31] Koronto, Abdirahman. 2016. “Back to school for Somalia’s journalists?” BBC News.

[32] 2010. “Press Freedom Prize goes to Somali radio station Radio Shabelle.” Reporters without Borders.

[33] 2015. “Somalia.” Freedom House

[34] 2016. “59 journalists killed in Somalia since 1992.” Committee to Protect Journalists.

[35] 2016. “Six sentenced in killing of journalist in Somalia.” Committee to Protect Journalist

[36] 2016. “United States.” The Freedom House.

[37] 2015. “United State.” Committee to Protect Journalist

[38] 2015. “Somalia.” Committee to Protect Journalist

[39] Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech. “New York Times Company v. Sullivan.” Oyez. (accessed March 30, 2016).

[40] Snyder v. Phelps. 131 S.Ct. 1207. Supreme Court of the United States. 2011. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Last updated April, 27, 2016.

%d bloggers like this: