OpEd: Hate speech in Somali media perpetuates inter-clan conflict


The Somali media has been growing steadily over the past couple of years from radio stations, newspapers, and websites to satellite televisions that are competing mainly for a local and, recently, a diaspora audience. Unfortunately some of these platforms have negatively impacted the peace building and reconciliation process by releasing material that can be classified as hate speech thus adding to the protracted conflict in the war torn country.

When the central government collapsed in 1991, warlords took over the country under various antagonizing factions. One of the most effective ways they used to reach out to the masses was FM radio stations which they used to pass messages and instill fear in the public. Subsequent groups that took control of the country, such as al-Shabaab, have all been using the media as a tool to spread their causes.

In September 2012 a new federal government was established which currently controls major strategic parts of the country including the capital city of Mogadishu. The government is struggling with the challenges of implementing the federal system by creating regional administrations, completing the provisional constitution, and passing key legislations in the hope of holding national elections in 2016.

The Somali media is central and cross cutting in the implementation of all the components of vision 2016. However, it is also being misused to disseminate information based on the interest of the various stakeholders comprising politicians, clan leaders hailing from the existing and proposed regional states; thus changing the whole objective of regional federalism to clan based federalism.

From the government-run Somali National Television, to the privately owned outlets to the ones run by the regional federal administrations, the general public is confused about what to listen and who to follow hence losing track of important issues affecting their lives.

Hate speech is and has been very common in the country where some leaders explicitly speak against particular groups based on their regional, political and clan affiliation. The various private media outlets broadcast such serious violations indiscriminately either due to lack of professional knowledge or, in many cases, for pecuniary motives.

The growing number of private media that independently release multimedia products to the public overwhelms the government run state media, which as a result is sometimes presented as competing private outlets.

Further, there is no legal framework regulating media practice. A controversial draft media bill has been in the works for several years now with various ministers coming in and leaving without getting parliament to pass it into law.

The Somali media, if used positively, is very crucial in educating the public about the state building and reconciliation process and can contribute to the understanding and formation of a fair federal system.

However, it is sometimes used as a public relations tool by clan affiliates to pass personal information, air concerns against particular groups, or accuse government officials of being unfair in their administrative decisions and actions. This has contributed to the perpetuation of clan loyalties over national interest. Members from various regions tend to manage their own websites, follow specific radio stations or sponsor programs that are in favor of their own agendas.

Somali media has arguably taken part in fueling some of the tribal clashes that have been going on in some parts of the country including the Lower Shabelle conflict between rival clan militias, conflicts which caused deaths, destructions, and displacements to significant numbers of innocent people.

The same happens when conflicts arise in the disputed regions of Sool, Sanaag and Ayn between Somaliland and Puntland. Politicians from both sides are known for fighting over the media, exchanging words that would only deepen the wounds and create animosity between people. They give speeches that would have them jailed if such speeches were given anywhere else outside Somalia but due to the impunity they enjoy, they don’t mind widening/creating the rift that tore Somalia apart.

Hate speech was on the rise during these conflicts where tribal leaders, members from the rival fighting factions and even some members of parliament have each accused the other of aggression over the disputed land. Some alleging the involvement of Somali national army in the inter-clan clashes; all reported via the local media mainstream.

The FM radio stations are the most commonly used channels in Somalia as well as websites. Social media pages such as Facebook and Twitter are also used lately to reach out to the diaspora who unfortunately tend to financially support their respective clan associates, adding fuel to the clan fires.

The impact of hate speech was closely felt in east Africa when Somalia’s neighboring country Kenya, almost descended into civil war during the 2007 post-elections violence that claimed the lives of over one thousand people and displaced over half a million. Vernacular radio broadcasts were used to spread hate against tribal lines resulting into serious clashes.

Hate speech via the media also played a key role in the Rwanda genocide in 1994 that is believed to have claimed some 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus, the legacy of which still remains a mystery.

While freedom of speech is important in restoring confidence among people, Somalia should learn a lesson from Kenya, the Central African Republic and Rwanda and act accordingly to prevent the dire consequence of hate speech or as a result slip back into the anarchy of the 1991 civil war.

The government of Somalia should swiftly pass the media bill after incorporating all the outstanding issues from the parties concerned. It should also train media houses and journalists on the ethics, professionalism and international standards.

It is important to create consensus on the definition of hate speech and its complications with all stakeholders. Political and key opinion leaders should also be bound by the same notion.

The ministry of information should build capacity of journalists and editors of the Somali media on important national matters such as federalism, the constitution and reconciliation process so that reporters will not only have the capacity of professional journalism but also receive a clear understanding of the issues being addressed and impart the same to the public.

Moulid Hujale is a Somali journalist. Follow him on Twitter@MoulidHujale.

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