Somalia Media and Telecoms Landscape Guide

Cover: Somalia Media and Telecoms Landscape Guide
(credit: Internews)

Infoasaid produced this media landscape guide about Somalia in January 2012.

Media overview

  • Radio is the single most important channel of communication in Somalia.
  • Somalis listen avidly to local radio stations and international broadcasters for news about their own country and the wider world.
  • Television – especially satellite television - is becoming increasingly popular in urban areas.
  • News also travels quickly by word of mouth via the extensive and ever expanding mobile phone network.
  • The BBC World Service Trust said in November 2011 in a policy briefing entitled The media of Somalia: A force for moderation?:

    “Media matters in Somalia. The society arguably ranks among the most media literate in Africa. While much divides a deeply fractured, war-torn and now drought-stricken and famine-stricken country, an ancient love of poetry and a common language unite it. So, throughout recent history, has an avid consumption of news and information. Obtaining information and assessing its trustworthiness has, in this traditionally pastoralist and nomadic society, always shaped not just politics, society and culture, but the odds of survival.”

  • The media landscape changes continuously.
  • Radio and TV stations are constantly opening and closing.
  • Many broadcasters go off air due to shortages of money, equipment and qualified staff.
  • Many are shut down from time to time by the local political authority.
  • In South Central Somalia, several radio stations have been forced off air completely by Al Shabaab.
  • The following description of life in the Al-Shabaab controlled town of Jowhar in Southern Somalia comes from the book Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State by Mary Harper, (to be published by Zed Press in February 2012.)

    “There is no freedom of speech. People cannot say what they want, and they certainly cannot complain about Al Shabaab because there are spies everywhere. If someone speaks out against the Islamists, he or she is sure to get a threatening phone call from Al Shabaab. People have been executed after being accused of spying for the transitional government, the Ethiopians or the Americans.

    There is a form of mind control going on in this town.

    We have almost no form of entertainment left in Jowhar. It is as if Al Shabaab does not want us to enjoy anything. We are not allowed to play music and we are forbidden from watching films in the video parlours, which used to be one of our most popular forms of amusement. We are allowed to watch certain Islamic television stations inside our houses but this is very isolating and lonely.

    One of the things young people in Jowhar used to love doing was going to the video halls to watch football matches. Many of them have now completely lost interest in sport because watching football on television at home alone is no fun at all.”

  • There are dozens of FM radio stations in Somalia, and a growing number of terrestrial, online and satellite television stations.
  • However, no single Somalia-based radio station can claim broad national coverage.
  • That is one reason why international radio stations broadcasting in Somali on Short Wave and via FM relay stations in the main cities remain popular and influential.
  • The most widely listened to international radio stations are the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Somali Service and the Voice of America (VOA) Somali Service.
  • Audience survey research by the BBC in Somaliland and Puntland in 2011 showed that both stations commanded large audiences and were widely trusted.
  • The UN-funded radio station Bar Kulan, which was launched in March 2010, is also rapidly gaining a mass audience, especially in the Mogadishu area.
  • Many local radio and TV stations within Somalia have well-established relationships with international and aid organisations and local NGOs.
  • They derive an important income from broadcasting public service announcements and sponsored humanitarian programmes.
  • In Somaliland, the government does not allow private radio stations to operate, although it does permit the BBC and VOA to run FM relays.
  • There is only one government-run radio station in Somaliland, but this cannot be heard outside the capital Hargeisa, so most people in this territory tune in to foreign broadcasters.
  • However, the Somaliland government has a more liberal attitude towards private television.
  • Hargeisa is home to three private TV stations; Horn Cable TV, one of the most popular satellite TV channels in Somalia, and two terrestrial broadcasters; Space Channel and Bulsho TV.
  • Somaliland also boasts several privately-owned newspapers.
  • Newspapers have all but disappeared from the rest of Somalia.
  • But the country boasts a bewildering range of online media.
  • According to one media specialist, there are up to 900 Somali news websites.
  • Many of these are run from overseas by members of the diaspora.
  • Some are highly sophisticated, with extensive news pages in Somali, English and Arabic.
  • Several stream live radio and TV.
  • But many Somali websites are quite basic. Their published content is unreliable and they fail to update their pages regularly.
  • A lot of websites are linked to the interests of a particular clan, region, political, religious or other interest group.
  • Radio is invariably the most effective way to reach people in Somalia. It is also a channel of communication that is ideally suited to the country’s oral culture.
  • Somalis have an insatiable appetite for news and Somalia is a land of few secrets.
  • People instantly pass on snippets of new information by mobile phone and news and gossip is spread rapidly through the internet, wherever it is available.
  • Poetry is a national passion and the subject of endless debate.
  • Traditional and contemporary Somali music are very popular – even though Al Shabaab has banned radio stations from playing music in the areas of South Central Somalia that it controls.
  • Radio is a particularly effective way for humanitarian agencies to reach displaced people.
  • It is common to see large groups of refugees and internally displaced Somalis crowding around a single radio set to listen to the latest news.
  • During the civil war in Mogadishu in the early 1990s, many clan fighters would stop fighting for a set period in the afternoon so they could listen to the BBC Somali Service.
  • Most FM radio stations in Somalia have a very limited geographical reach.
  • They are only audible in the town where they are based and a small swathe of the surrounding rural area.
  • However, some, such as Radio Daljir and SBC in Puntland, operate a chain of powerful FM relay stations that carry their signal to a wider audience.
  • People in more remote locations rely on international stations broadcasting on Short Wave.
  • In September 2011, the BBC Somali Service began broadcasting a daily 15-minute humanitarian programme to help people cope with the drought and famine emergency. It ran a similar programme for several months in 2009.
  • The BBC Somali Service also broadcasts a missing persons programme in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
  • The popularity of international broadcasters varies according to region.
  • VOA is particularly popular in Somaliland.
  • This is partly because its signal is beamed in from powerful Medium Wave transmitters in neighbouring Djibouti.
  • VOA can therefore be heard in many parts of Somaliland more clearly than the BBC.
  • VOA is also popular in Somaliland because of the perceived bias of the BBC Somali Service against Somaliland’s independence.
  • The BBC Somali Service denies any bias and claims that it is strictly neutral in this regard.
  • According to a set of two opinion surveys conducted in 2010, the popularity of the BBC Somali Service in Mogadishu declined slightly during the year.
  • A first survey conducted in January 2010 by Mogadishu Media House, a local media development NGO, found that the BBC Somali Service was the most popular station in the capital.
  • 54% of respondents said they listened to its broadcasts at least once a day.
  • However, a second survey by Mogadishu Media House in November 2010 found that the BBC Somali Service had slipped to fourth position.
  • Only 48% of respondents to the second survey said then that they listened to the BBC on a daily basis.
  • One reason for the decline could be that BBC programmes were no longer available on FM in some areas of the city as a result of Al Shabaab closing down several of its radio transmitters.
  • Bar Kulan, a UN-funded radio station that broadcasts to Somalia from Nairobi, Kenya, has become increasingly popular since its launch in March 2010.
  • The station broadcasts on FM throughout the day in Somalia’s two largest cities: Mogadishu and Bossasso.
  • It also has short morning and evening broadcasts on Short Wave that reach the entire country.
  • Television has become increasingly popular in urban areas, both in private homes and in public places such as teashops, hotel lobbies and public viewing centres known as ‘video parlours.’
  • These are venues where large groups of people gather to watch football matches and other TV shows.
  • However, Al Shabaab has banned the watching of football matches, music videos and other programmes in video parlours in the areas that it controls.
  • Somali language satellite TV stations, are extremely popular, especially HornCable TV, which broadcasts from Hargeisa, and Universal, which is based in London.
  • TV stations often broadcast programmes on humanitarian issues. Some of these are produced in collaboration with international aid agencies.
  • International satellite TV channels are popular wherever they are available, in particular the Arabic and English language channels of Al Jazeera.
  • BBC World is also fairly well respected.
  • Somali Futures: an exploration, a series of surveys conducted in Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, the UK and the USA by the Humanitarian Futures Programme of King’s College, London reached the following conclusion in July 2011:

    “Somalis revealed deep knowledge and awareness of international and Somali current affairs. Indeed, it became clear that, except for a small minority (mainly of Somali youths living in the UK), Somalis take an avid interest in events in their country by listening to the radio, watching television, and using the internet, as well as making personal telephone calls. Many said they frequently watch Universal, the Somali language cable TV channel, or Al Jazeera, and listen to the BBC Somali Service and the Voice of America… A 29-year old female from Bossasso said, “Even if you don’t listen to the radio, people will call you and tell you want is happening”. In Nairobi, and in Puntland, more than 90% of respondents reported that they follow events in Somalia constantly.”

  • Like radios, mobile phones are well-suited to Somalia’s nomadic and mostly illiterate population.
  • Although phone ownership is limited amongst the very poor, many nomads and displaced people have handsets.
  • Others have access to phones owned by friends, neighbours and relatives.
  • In remote locations, IDP camps and other places with limited or no electricity supply, people pay a small fee to charge their handsets from solar powered chargers or small petrol-driven generators owned by traders and businessmen.
  • SMS messages have limited and very specific applications in Somalia, given the high rate of illiteracy and people’s preference for talking rather than reading and writing as a method of communication.
  • SMS messages are widely used to advise recipients of a money transfer that their cash is waiting to be collected.
  • Once the sum has been paid out, the money transfer company sends a confirmation text message to the payee to confirm that the transaction has been completed.
  • Al Shabaab and other extremist groups meanwhile use SMS messages and voice calls to threaten people. Death threats and other forms of intimidation are frequently communicated in this manner.
  • Somali journalists working as far afield as Nairobi have received death threats by text message from Al Shabaab.
  • Somalia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
  • In recent years, several Somali journalists have been killed. Others have been arrested and imprisoned.
  • Many journalists practice self censorship for their own safety.
  • Most media organizations in Somalia are privately owned.
  • Many represent the interests of a particular group or region and a large number are controlled by Somalis living overseas.
  • Some radio and TV stations are run directly by political authorities, such as the Federal Transitional Government in Mogadishu, Al Shabaab and the government of Somaliland.
  • Humanitarian organizations should carefully study media outlets before engaging with them in order to avoid becoming too closely associated with one particular faction.
  • Many influential Somalis in the diaspora have invested heavily in radio and TV stations back home. Some have used these media outlets to promote their own interests and political ambitions.
  • Diaspora Somalis have also offered valuable technical expertise to the local media, which suffers from a lack of professional training.
  • Mogadishu hosts the largest concentration of radio stations in the country.
  • Another big media centre is the port city of Bossasso in Puntland. It hosts three major radio stations and two local TV stations, as well as a number of smaller radio stations.
  • The divided city of Galkayo, which straddles the border between Puntland and the Galmudug region of Central Somalia, is also a hot spot for radio activity. It hosts several small stations.
  • Most other large towns only have one or two local radio stations – if they have any at all.
  • Local authorities often try to exert a degree of control over the media in the areas that they administer.
  • The Regional Authority in Puntland has occasionally closed down radio stations, including the large and influential networks of Daljir and SBC.
  • The Puntland Regional Authority has also harassed and imprisoned individual journalists that have incurred its displeasure.
  • In November 2011, it banned two Somali language satellite television channels from operating in Puntland, accusing them of “constantly provoking violence”.
  • The government of Somaliland does not allow private radio stations at all.
  • On several occasions it has banned newspapers and imprisoned journalists.
  • Al Shabaab has clamped down heavily on what used to be a very vibrant and liberal media landscape in South Central Somalia, crushing freedom of speech in the large territory that it controls.
  • This has led to a high degree of self-censorship by journalists operating in Al Shabaab controlled territory, or in places where it has an influence.
  • The internet has proved more difficult for political factions to control since so many online news services are produced overseas by members of the diaspora.
  • Lack of control and regulation has led to the emergence of some highly unreliable internet news services, the growth of ‘hate speech’, and the unbridled promotion of particular interest groups.
  • But more positively, the global and anonymous nature of the internet has led to a more fearless attitude amongst journalists who write for the web.
  • They report atrocities committed by all sides and often accompany their reports with graphic images.
  • Somali is the most effective language for transmitting messages to Somalis inside the country and refugees in neighbouring states.
  • Everybody speaks Somali, at all levels of society. Oral messages, circulated via the radio or other means, will reach more people than written ones.
  • According to the CIA Factbook, adult literacy in Somalia was 38% in 2001, but the real figure today is undoubtedly much lower.
  • The UN does not attempt to put a figure on literacy levels. More than two decades of war have led to the destruction of many schools and the closure of many of those that remain.
  • There are a number of sensitive subjects, which are rarely addressed in the media.
  • These include homosexuality, which is condemned by Islam and is punishable by death under shari’ah law.
  • Female genital mutilation, which is widely practiced by Somalis is another sensitive issue, but some radio stations do openly question it.
  • The Somali media is heavily dominated by men. Working conditions for female journalists can be difficult and, at times, dangerous.
  • Some further education institutions offer courses in journalism and mass communication, leading to degrees or diplomas.
  • These include the University of Mogadishu, Fairland and Admas universities in Hargeisa, and the East Africa University in Bossasso.
  • However, most journalists rely on media training programmes offered by international development organisations, or they simply learn on the job.
  • Very few Somali media houses offer in-house training.
  • Several organizations that purport to represent Somali journalists have been set up, but few of them genuinely protect media professionals or promote their interests.
  • Many are simply front organizations set up to attract donor funding.
  • Others are associations that represent media owners, rather than the journalists who work for them.
  • Regulation of the media, where it exists, is very informal and ad hoc
  • In Somaliland, for instance, if someone wants to open a TV station or newspaper, they must simply register with the Ministry of Information and with the Attorney General.
  • A media law was approved by the Somaliland parliament in 2005, but it has never been fully implemented.
  • Somaliland courts still use the penal code, not the media law, to deal with journalists.

Read a PDF version of the report

Read a text version of the report

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