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Media crackdown in Somalia draws protests

Sahal Abdulle
Reuters
Tuesday, January 16, 2007 

Somali government officials were to meet on Tuesday with executives from four major news outlets shut down for "causing unrest" in a move drawing swift criticism from press watchdogs at home and abroad.

The closure of the outlets, accused by the government of heightening tensions by airing unconfirmed reports, 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," Gabriel Baglo, Africa office director of the International Federation of Journalists, said.

"We condemn this unacceptable violation of press freedom."

Representatives of HornAfrik Media and Shabelle Media Network, two of the largest independent broadcasters, plus the Koranic radio station IQK and the local office of Al Jazeera TV were summoned on Tuesday to the national security agency.

Analysts said the government deems the four outlets' coverage to have been pro-Islamist, a charge they all deny.

The National Union of Somali Journalists said the move completely undermined democratic values.

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.

U.N. TO RAISE MEDIA ISSUE

The United Nations envoy to Somalia, Francois Lonseny Fall, said he would discuss the media closures with President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi.

"The U.N. is always in favor of freedom of expression. It is a principle," Fall told Reuters.

On Monday, HornAfrik and Shabelle both said they had shut down. Qatar-based Al Jazeera said it had not been informed, but saw no reason for such a move. IQK made no immediate comment.

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 Somali government source said three Somalis were killed.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the assault, which happened late on Sunday in an area where Ethiopian and government forces had seized guns, explosives and an armored car hours earlier in a sweep to scoop up illegal weapons.

But suspicion fell on remnants of the Islamist movement who have vowed to wage a guerrilla war, clan gunmen and militias loyal to former warlords who have returned to the capital.

Ethiopia wants to pull out its soldiers in the coming weeks.

Diplomats fear that would leave a security vacuum around the fledgling government, which has called for the urgent deployment of a promised African Union peacekeeping force.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Nairobi)

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