As Elmi Mohammed Waare ambled through an outdoor market in the central Somali town of Beledweyne in December 2007, two casually-dressed, non-descript members of the Al-Shabaab militia group abruptly blocked his path. He had been threatened twice before in anonymous phone calls. The face-to-face confrontation was forthcoming.
“They said ‘you know what you have done. You have insulted us. We are giving you the last warning. You must leave the city in seven days or be killed’,” Waare recalled.
As a radio journalist in his hometown of Beledweyne, Waare, now 26 years old, reported on the policy initiatives of the former provincial governor at the time that Al-Shabaab was gaining momentum. Now notorious for the brutality afflicted on central and southern Somalis for the past five years, the militant group violently muzzled dissent and objective media coverage as it accumulated power.
“Three days later I left. I did not tell many people I was leaving because I could be intercepted,” said Waare, from his temporary home in the Eastleigh district of Nairobi, Kenya. “Even when I was leaving, I left the city hiding.”
Waare’s story epitomises the experiences of dozens of Somali and regional journalists forced into exile by government and militia repression and threats posed by conflict. Kenya is the preferred destination for journalists in East Africa and the Horn of Africa region facing adverse conditions. “Compared to its neighbors, Kenya is relatively welcoming. There are fewer security issues here,” said Neela Ghoshal, Human Rights Watch Africa researcher based in Nairobi. “People also don’t have a great fear that Kenyan security is in league with security forces from neighbouring countries.”
According to US based Committee to Protect Journalists, Kenya ranks second to the United States among global destinations for exiled journalists, harbouring at least 66 members of the media. Those forced to flee are overwhelmingly from neighbouring countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. In those countries, state and militia suppression of independent and objective media is endemic.
“Kenya has a robust media. We really have to appreciate the change in media landscape since [current President Mwai] Kibaki came to power,” said CPJ Africa consultant Tom Rhodes, while conceding some press freedom issues remain in the country, mostly relating to media monopoly, political influence and isolated incidents of intimidation and violence against journalists.
Kenya represents a beacon of regional press freedom, and the majority of regional journalists are able to continue to work in the media field without harassment. Independent press, according to Rhodes, is only one of many reasons journalists flock to Kenya. “Like in any country, refugees look for their own kind. This is especially true for Somalis here.”
There is also a strong, if overburdened, United Nations presence in Kenya. They lend critical assistance to refugees throughout the region.
There are many exiled journalists currently residing here, and Somali journalists in particular have networks to vent frustration and design a path forward.
But life in Nairobi is by no means glamorous. Waare and other exiled journalists face cultural adversity and minimal employment opportunities. The overwhelming Somali Eastleigh district where Waare resides is plagued by government neglect. Roads are derelict, property is vulnerable to intrusion and subject to skyrocketing inflation. For Waare, however, the most distressing aspect of life here is the time he wastes unemployed and inactive, and unable to provide for his wife and children back in Somalia.
“I haven’t paid any bills for my family. I sleep and I wake up. Then I go to mosque and I go home,” said Waare. “I do nothing else. Life now is very difficult. I’m fed up with this situation.”
After spending more than three years in Kenya illegally, Waare currently holds a UNHCR refugee mandate and a Kenyan refugee status certificate. He now shares a miniscule room with two other Somalis in a concrete slab building. His sister provides food and his $35 monthly rent from money her Somali-American husband sends her.
In Somalia, Waare was employed with Voice of America and other local media outlets. After arriving in Kenya, he had a brief stint with Frontier FM, a Somali language station that broadcasts in Nairobi and throughout Kenya’s Northeast province. Now, with no means of income, he is constantly plotting his return to Beledweyne.
That prospect is arguably more attainable now than it has been at any point since Waare’s departure. Suffering from a concerted international military and diplomatic offensive, Al-Shabaab is now at its most debilitated state in years. After an initial foray into Somalia in January, Ethiopian troops ousted the militant group from several major urban centers near the border and now occupy Beledweyne. Although the Ethiopians have imposed strict curfews and local economies are in shambles, life may be on the path towards peace.
“The Ethiopian presence there is a good thing. But the menace is still there. They are hiding,” said Waare.
Ethiopia is ostensibly fighting alongside Kenyan and African Union peacekeepers that support Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Tom Rhodes says stronger TFG control in southern and central Somalia may lead to enhanced media freedom.
“There was zero independent reporting under Al-Shabaab. Potentially there will be more press freedom if the TFG takes greater control,” said Rhodes. “The TFG on the surface seems more sympathetic to the press. We see signs it is investigating murder cases of journalists that took place last year.”
Nonetheless, Somalia remains the most oppressive media environment across the globe. According to the CPJ, four of the 13 journalists killed internationally in 2012 have been Somali. Fortunately Waare escaped the war-torn country unscathed and his flight was less traumatic than some. One colleague of his tried to reach South Africa overland but was detained in a Tanzanian jail for seven months for illegal entry. His health, according to Waare, was in an abysmal state upon his release.
Other colleagues tried to begin new lives in Ethiopia but failed due to the harsh conditions. As difficult as life appears to be for Waare, Kenya has provided him the best opportunity available.
“There is no freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Some of my friends have gone to Ethiopia and they say you can’t live as a journalist there. Its not allowed,” he said. “That’s not the case in Kenya.”
Brian Dabbs is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes for The Atlantic, World Politics Review and Think Africa Press, among other publications.