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Shabelle Media is Somalia's largest news outlet — and a very dangerous place to work. Of the 12 journalists gunned down in the country last year, four were reporting for Shabelle.
A number of the reporters are teenagers, some as young as 15. The reporters almost never venture out of the office, which is outfitted with sleeping quarters and a kitchen.
Why are Shabelle's young journalists being targeted more than others?
"They're being killed for the kind of reporting they're doing. It's a biased, slander machine," says Tom Rhodes, the East Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "I'd like to say it was because they're more adventurous, getting out there [to tell the hard stories], but it's not true."
While Shabelle reports plenty of straight news, its journalists have also reported some more eyebrow-raising stories: that Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud is a "thief"; that the mayor of Mogadishu, Abdirazak "Tarzan" Mohamed Nur, went insane; and other apparently slanderous attacks on public officials and powerful businessmen.
Shabelle is owned by London-based Somali businessman Abdimalik Yusuf Mohamud, who did not respond to requests for comment from NPR.
"We call [these journalists] the mercenaries of tycoons," says Mohammed Garane, a journalist living in exile who is on the executive board of the National Union of Somali Journalists. "Tycoons and owners who live overseas exploit the media, and that is the case that causes the killings."
War Over The Airwaves
Media is thriving in the new Somalia. And journalism is one of the few careers people can pursue without education or money or family connections. Young Somalis who grew up during the past two decades of war talk about a career in journalism with a kind of awe.
"I know it's very difficult ... because all my friends, they died," says Hamdi Ali Ahmed, 20. "Still now, I like journalism; I'm working [as a] journalist; my hobby's a journalist."
"Hobby," it turns out, is a word in the Somali tongue — borrowed from the English, but with a meaning closer to passion, or calling, than pastime.
Abdi Uud is Shabelle's 38-year-old news director. He banks on that zeal when he hires journalists as young as 15 and 16.
"The young people are passionate about this work," Uud says. "And if a person is passionate, he doesn't care if he'll be killed or not."
For a while, that was the case for one ex-Shabelle journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
Even as a child he dreamed of being a reporter. He used to cut class to join his grandfather under a tree listening to the BBC Somali Service. When he finally got his hands on a microphone at age 18, his reports for local radio nearly got him beheaded by Islamist militants. He fled to the capital, Mogadishu, where Radio Shabelle gave him a mattress to sleep on and three meals a day.
But the hospitality came with a price.
He and other journalists, he says, were ordered to report falsehoods against the owner's political enemies. One by one, his fellow reporters were shot down in the street, with no one ever punished for the crimes. After he helped produce a story he says was dictated directly by Shabelle's owner, accusing top officials of embezzling millions of dollars from the Port Authority, gunmen ambushed and shot the journalist. He survived and escaped to Nairobi.
He said he kept doing his job because he had three kids to feed and needed the job. But he also felt like if he just stuck it out long enough, he'd get the experience to become the journalist he always dreamed of becoming. Now, he is teaching journalism and says ethics are a part of his curriculum.
"I won't ever betray my profession again," he says.
Journalists Begin To Return
Not every journalist killed in Somalia was dealing in slander. Many have been gunned down for trying to tell the truth.
Rhodes, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says there is a culture of impunity in Somalia, where no one has ever been punished for killing a journalist, and where young journalists can be easily exploited.
"The most professional journalists have all fled the country. That creates a brain drain, and leaves a much younger, less experienced press corps trying to run the show," he says.
The good news is that the country is safer, and exiled journalists are slowly returning home, becoming news directors of newly reputable stations.
And Radio Shabelle dropped in popularity last year, according to an unpublished survey done by researchers for AMISOM, the international peacekeeping force in Somalia — in part, one researcher says, because Somalis are weary of media that are being used for propaganda by their owners. The hope is that Somalis are voting for real journalism with the radio dial.
Exiled journalist Garane says that for the killings of journalists to cease, the country needs a better legal system, or the targets of slander will always be driven to street justice.
"There is no court that a person can go to report his anger," he says. "So he takes a pistol, and he kills the journalist."