BOB GARFIELD: For reporters, nations in transition can be not only anxiety-producing, but deadly. Somalia, for instance, ruled intermittently by militant Islamists, has been riven by two decades of civil war. But since 2010, there's been a semblance of uneasy peace, a popularly elected government and, as with Egypt, a flowering of journalism. Somali journalists have long supplied an anxious populace with information needed to be safe, but that reporting has come at a huge cost. Journalists often are killed for offending the powers that be. One was murdered just last month and a dozen in 2012, the deadliest year on record. Gregory Warner, NPR's East Africa correspondent, recently visited the nation's leading news outlet, a place most veteran reporters have been forced to flee.
GREGORY WARNER: Last year there were more journalists in exile from Somalia than from any other country. And yet, also last year we saw more new Somali radio stations, new TV outlets, than ever. So, on the one hand, you have these seasoned journalists fleeing or dying or quitting the game, but the journalists stepping into their place, well, they’re extraordinarily young. I went to Radio Shabelle, the country’s largest news outlet, and I met reporters who were 20, 22 but also 18, 16, 15 years old.
BOB GARFIELD: And it’s not a student-run station. This is a top outlet.
GREGORY WARNER: Yeah, this is one of the most popular outlets in Somalia, but it did actually feel like a college dorm/war bunker, ‘cause you have foam mats lying everywhere. That's where the journalists sleep; they don’t want to risk going home. Passionate young journalists - everybody's kind of gathered. At one point on my tour, I came upon a guy playing a Casio keyboard and all the other reporters were just kind of singing along.
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It turns out this is a thing they do on Fridays. Here’s one of the women singing:
She’s 20 years old. Her name is Hamdi. She’s been a reporter since she was 15. At the time I was listening and I was thinking, gosh, these, these people are singing even while their colleagues are dying, they’re – they’re so brave. Well, I spoke to a lot of these young journalists on my tour of Shabelle, and they used this funny word when I asked him why they were taking these risks, here at the most dangerous radio station in all of Mogadishu. This is Hamdi Ali Ahmed, the 20-year-old reporter we heard singing.
HAMDI ALI AHMED: “‘Cause my hobby is a journalist, I think it’s a nice future.”
GREGORY WARNER: It turns out that “hobby” is a Somali word. It means something more like passion or, or calling. In Somalia, real journalists are like rock stars. For anybody in Somalia 25 years or younger, you know, they’ve never known a time that their country wasn’t engulfed by war. And, of course, if there’s a crisis, first thing that goes on is the radio. And radios are always on in Somali homes. It means maybe the difference between life and death.
And the news director of Shabelle told me that he hires young journalists – he actually said this - because they are so passionate, they don't care about the risk of being killed.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, a 15-year-old is not equipped with the skills required to shed light where there is only darkness, to speak truth to power. What exactly are they doing with their microphones?
GREGORY WARNER: Well, it turns out that if you have political ambitions in the power vacuum of Somalia today, then it can be quite useful to own radio station, to sling mud at your political or tribal rivals and to staff that radio station with relatively young malleable, untrained journalists who are a lot easier to control.
So I’ll tell you a story. I heard this from a former journalist at Radio Shabelle. I promised him I would not use his name or his voice, but I will play some tape of his translator speaking. This guy’s 22 when he starts working for Shabelle Media but he’d already been a journalist for four years. In fact, he’d already been threatened to be beheaded by Islamists for his reporting. So by the time he gets to Mogadishu, he knows nobody in the capital and he gets essentially adopted by Radio Shabelle. They give him a mat to sleep on, they give him three meals a day and they promote him eventually to news editor. This hospitality comes with a price. He gets this email from the station owner, a London-based Somali businessmen, and it essentially gives him the exact story that he's to polish up in journalese and voice on the air the next day.
BOB GARFIELD: And the story accuses this character of corruption.
GREGORY WARNER: Right. And he says, I – I didn’t report this and what’s here is just not true. And in this bold move, he calls up the owner in London to refuse, and he’s told, you know, basically, kid, you got no choice, you do the story or hit the street. And he’s really scared. And he’s sitting in the studio with the news director, a guy that’s known as “Mr. Fantastic.” And just before he’s about to do the story:
JOURNALIST (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We were together, me and Fantastic, sat on side by side, and then I told him as a joke, me and you, one will go after this story.
GREGORY WARNER: So, me and you, one of us will go. And, sure enough, by that evening, Fantastic is dead. He’s been shot in a hail with bullets entering into his front door, leaves behind a wife and three children. A few weeks later the journalist himself telling me this story is also shot. He survives. He finally manages to flee across the border to a hospital in Nairobi, in Kenya. And after all this, what hurts him the most is that nobody from Shabelle contributes to his medical expenses or even pays him a visit in the hospital.
BOB GARFIELD: The example you gave me is horrendous, of course, but it’s not isolated? It’s not an outlier? These young journalists are being deployed like this routinely?
GREGORY WARNER: Well, Shabelle Media is particularly known for this virulent attack journalist. They have said the Mayor of Mogadishu burned a Somali flag, then escaped overseas to have mental treatment. I mean, they specialize in, in smears and slurs.
BOB GARFIELD: And are reporting the n – real news, in addition to the, the dirty tricks playing?
GREGORY WARNER: They are. If you just turn on Radia Shabelle at any random moment, you’ll probably hear more real news than attack news. It’s actually been an independent radio station since 2002 and, for most of those years, it actually had a really good reputation.
BOB GARFIELD: There are a lot of media outlets in Mogadishu. Is Radio Shabelle the only one that’s – that’s playing this game?
GREGORY WARNER: No, one of the sad things is that after the power vacuum that happened when Al-Shabab, the Islamic militants were pushed out of capital in 2011, a lot of new stations started appearing. Their backers were mostly powerful people who wanted to play power politics, so the stations were very much influenced by that.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Greg, Somalia was total chaos as recently as 10 years ago. Now it seems to have some semblance of a structured state to it. Is what you've described a remnant of the bad old days or is it a new phenomenon that should give us pause about any hope that this country has for ever righting itself?
GREGORY WARNER: I think it cuts both ways. I mean, you could definitely see this as just a rocky beginning to a new democracy that's transitioning from years of chaos, no institutions, no central government at all. Of course, it’s gonna look kinda messy. Or you could argue that, no, this is the very destabilizing dangerous force that is holding back Somalia's chances.
Another country that I spent the – a fair amount of time in is Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, also you see the same thing. Just after the Taliban fell, there was all this free press encouraged, many times by western funding, and journalists became very powerful. And then, it wasn't long before individual warlords and Islamists started their own radio stations. And it’s interesting what Afghans called this. They didn’t call it "journalism.” They called it “zoor-nalism” from the Dari word “zoor,” meaning force.
The favorite targets of his zoor-nalists were always the legitimate Afghan journalists trying to expose problems in society. There was this woman Zakia Zaki – I don’t know if you remember her a few years ago. She was the founder of Peace Radio in Afghanistan. She was gunned down in front of her two-year-old daughter. She was killed after a vicious zoor-nalist campaign against her. So the fear is in Somalia that this kind of journalism will just keep the tribal conflicts fresh and not allow the country to heal.
I think the good news is that Radio Shabelle is becoming less popular. The hope, I think, is that if the security continues and experienced journalists start going back into the country which they've had to flee, then this attack journalism will be a kind of phase. The amazing thing to me is that young Somali journalists are still willing to sacrifice themselves just for the chance of one day ascending to a job where they can tell the truth.
BOB GARFIELD: Greg, thank you.
GREGORY WARNER: Thanks, Bob.
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BOB GARFIELD: Gregory Warner is NPR’s East Africa Correspondent. We spoke to him from Nairobi, Kenya. For more of his reporting from Somalia, keep an ear to NPR’s Morning Edition.