January 16, 2007

Somali government lifts ban, media back on air

By Sahal Abdulle
MOGADISHU, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The Somali government on Tuesday relaxed a ban on four major media outlets it had closed, accusing them of biased coverage during the Horn of Africa nation's recent war, media owners said. Officials complained the outlets -- including two of Somalia's largest independent broadcasters and the local office of Al Jazeera TV -- aired unconfirmed reports and leaned towards Islamists ousted at the New Year by an Ethiopian-led offensive. But Monday's closures brought the government a blaze of unwelcome publicity and protests from both local and foreign media watchdogs, who said it was an affront to democracy. Media executives emerged from a lengthy meeting with government officials on Tuesday to announce they were going back on the air.
"The government reversed the ban," Ali Iman Sharmarke, co-owner of HornAfrik broadcaster, told Reuters. "The international media and international organisations, especially the ones who work to protect the media, played a major role in the lifting of this ban."
The 24-hour closure of the outlets came as martial law was declared across Somalia weeks after an Ethiopian-led military offensive ousted Islamists in the south. "
Shutting down private media houses is the worst way to reconcile the Somali people and to bring the country out of these long periods of chaos," said Gabriel Baglo, Africa office director of the International Federation of Journalists. "We condemn this unacceptable violation of press freedom," he added, speaking before the ban was lifted. The radio stations of HornAfrik and another major independent broadcaster, Shabelle Media Network, could be heard soon after the media executives met government security officials, a Reuters correspondent in Mogadishu confirmed. As well Al Jazeera TV, the other broadcaster affected was the Koranic radio station IQK. All deny having favoured the Islamists. The interim government is trying to bring the volatile nation of 10 million under control after its soldiers, backed by Ethiopian troops, tanks and warplanes, routed Islamists in late December who had seized much of the south.
Ethiopia wants to pull out its soldiers in the coming weeks. But diplomats fear that would leave a security vacuum around the fledgling government, which has called for the urgent deployment of a promised African Union (AU) peacekeeping force. As president of the east African regional body IGAD, Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki is leading a regional push to muster an African mission. Kibaki discussed the issue with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi during a surprise visit to Nairobi. In a joint statement, the two leaders called on Tuesday for "immediate deployment" of an AU-IGAD peacekeeping force. "The two leaders welcomed the offers made by a number of African countries to contribute troops and invited other African countries to support the initiative," the statement added, without giving more details of individual countries. Only Uganda has publicly offered to contribute, and analysts are sceptical as to whether a mission can even be put together let alone come to grips with Somalia's myriad problems. Underlining the challenge Yusuf and Gedi face taming a country in anarchy since the 1991 ouster of a dictator was the latest attack on an Ethiopian convoy in northern Mogadishu. A doctor said eight people were wounded while a government source said three Somalis died in the assault late on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi)
Reuters/ AlertNet

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