Journalists and humanitarian workers at risk in war-ravaged Somalia

The killing highlights the dangerous environment in which journalists and humanitarian workers in the war-torn country continue to work.

Two European journalists were released two days ago after being kidnapped for 40 days. UK journalist Colin Freeman, aged 39, and Spanish photographer Jose Cendon, 34, were handed over to local elders by their kidnappers and flown to Kenya on Sunday.

Less fortunate was Hassan Mayow Hassan, a Somali journalist working for Radio Shabelle in the Afgoye District of the lower Shabelle region. He was shot dead on 1 January by armed men while seeking to report on fighting in the area.

He is at least the tenth Somali journalist to have been killed since February 2007. Some were targeted in deliberate killings. Others were killed when caught in armed conflict between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its Ethiopian allies and armed opposition militias.

Somali journalists not only risk their lives in order to publish much needed information on a highly volatile situation. In the past two years, they have also faced death threats by TFG security forces and armed groups; arbitrary arrests and detentions; beatings; abductions; the closure of radio stations and other media outlets; and other restrictions on their activities and coverage.

In a report in 2008, Amnesty International described these attacks against journalists as deliberate actions taken by all parties to the conflict in Somalia to silence them. Yet Somali journalists’ work is vital, as they are the only ones to report on the daily violence affecting the population, in a conflict which has become too dangerous for consistent international monitoring.

Somali journalists continue to bear witness to a vicious war that has, since the start of 2007, killed more than 16,000 civilians and displaced at least 870,000, and created a humanitarian crisis, with 3.25 million Somalis now depending on aid agencies for their survival.

The human rights situation in Somalia, already battered by conflict and the absence of an effective government since 1991, has sharply deteriorated over the past two years. In late 2006, Ethiopian troops entered the country to support the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, appointed in 2004, and oust the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from the capital Mogadishu and surrounding regions, where they had maintained effective control since June 2006.

In response, remnants of ICU militias and other armed groups launched an insurgency against Somalia’s transitional government and its Ethiopian allies. All parties to the conflict have been responsible for indiscriminate or targeted attacks against civilians.

In a disturbing trend, killings and threats have extended beyond journalists, with human rights and humanitarian workers increasingly targeted. Amnesty International has investigated 46 cases in which humanitarian workers and members of Somali civil society organizations were killed in 2008, the majority of whom were victims of targeted killings. These attacks have served to silence reports of human rights abuses and to severely limit the flow of aid to a desperate population.

Conscious of their important role as witnesses to the plight of the population, Somali journalists demonstrated on 28 December in Mogadishu calling for the warring parties to respect the rights of media workers.

As Somalia enters an increasingly uncertain period of political transition, with the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and the resignation of the President of the transitional government, Amnesty International has appealed to all parties to the conflict to stop attacks and threats against civilians, including journalists, civil society activists and humanitarian workers.

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