“What If This Were My Mother?”: Covering Somalia

A recent lunchtime seminar at Dart Centre Europe brought together Somali journalists and others who cover the war-torn country to explore ways to provide more nuanced coverage.

If Somalia were a product, and a market research company asked people with no connection to the country what the brand stood for, war, piracy and famine would be the most likely answer.

To be sure, Somalia is a risky and complex environment for international and local journalists to work in: the most dangerous country in Africa to practice journalism, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The threat of violence has driven more journalists into exile from Somalia than from any other country in the past year.

But does the perception that this stateless land has a special talent for violence distort news coverage, giving a lopsided image of how life is lived there? What does the relentless focus on specific aspects of the conflict hide from view and what are ways that journalists can provide more nuanced coverage of the problems that do exist?

This summer, Dart Centre Europe brought working media from international news organisations and members of the Somali diaspora together in London to discuss the challenges journalists face in seeing the country clearly, and what might constitute best practice for producing informative and accurate coverage.


Participants agreed that one of the biggest hurdles Western journalists face is access. Due to safety concerns, many rely on embed type trips, through the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the U.S. Navy, which has carriers off the coast.

It may not only be access to physical space that is restricted from view: Somali participants also identified that journalistic representations limit public understanding. For example, a journalist’s claim that the militant group al-Shabaab controls an entire area may be simplified – the truth may well rather be that the territory is in mixed possession.


Somali panelist Jamal Osman, a recent winner of a One World Award for his Somali coverage for Channel 4 News in the UK suggested that there are opportunities for journalists to report in non al-Shabaab areas, where it may be more safe. Osman noted that the lack of reporting in such areas, and the difficulty in accessing real people has led to over-simplification of the issues and problems. “International media miss the complexity of Somali society,” Osman said. “They see us as good versus evil.

Because al-Shabaab is seen as the biggest threat, any negative story is reported without proper fact-checking, he said: 



"For instance, there are stories about al-Shabaab banning samosas, there was another story about al-Shababb banning women wearing bras … There were so many ridiculous stories– some of the big media [organisations] cover those stories, which are completely made up … they are not exaggerating or being biased, those stories are completely fabricated."

Historically reportage on Africa has been bedeviled by the trope that beyond a thin line, in all the unknown spaces, lies darkness. This time perhaps that is mapped onto al-Shabaab. But the picture becomes more complicated, once one looks around.


The simplistic representation is perhaps encouraged by a public thirst and editorial push for more stories about piracy, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, which create a perverse market, where some local Somali stringers feel they need to go the extra mile to give editors what they want.


It is hard for any Somali journalist to escape focusing on violence. Most grew up during the civil war, an experience that Osman suggests makes it “easy for them to cover a conflict… they know that daily news story very well.”


This hardening of the gaze also has an impact on young Somalis living in London, eight and half hours flight time from Mogadishu. The Somali writer Nadifa Mohamed wrote recently in the Guardian: “Young Somalis’ sense of identity seems more powerfully formed by the persistently negative representations found in the media.”

There are omissions as well as distortions. “What’s missing are human stories and not just human stories where a sound bite is illustrative of someone’s suffering… but much longer and layered stories,” said panelist Juliana Ruhfus, a journalist for Al Jazeera English.   

Exceptions to this, she suggested, could be found. One is Osman’s report for the UK’s Channel 4 News on the extraordinary risks that Somalia athletes were taking to prepare for the 2012 Olympics – their training ground, known as the “road of death” lies on the dividing line between government forces and al-Shabaab militia. Another is Robert Elliott’s film for Al Jazeera English, the Mayor of Mogadishu. The latter follows the story of how a returnee politician set out to organise a street festival celebrating Somali culture in Mogadishu and in inauspicious circumstances.

After two decades of violence, many outsiders might be surprised, however, to discover just how functional some things in Somalia are.


Mary Harper, author of Getting Somalia Wrong; Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State and Africa Editor at the BBC World Service, listed a few of the stories about Somalia that aren’t being told. More live animals are exported from Somali ports than anywhere else in the world, and Africa’s biggest money transfer company is based in Somaliland.


She is currently intrigued by the discovery of oil reserves across the territory: “I keep thinking Somalia could become the Dubai of Africa… If they do end up with oil, the rest of Africa better watch out.” Somalis have a great talent for making do and for getting on with business.


Even with ideas and access, however, there are still challenges to getting a clear view of Somali realities, a point raised by Juliana Ruhfus. Clan identities and political leanings are particularly complex in Somalia and nuanced coverage requires not only the vigilance and skepticism journalism demands, but also a concerted effort to understand the numerous groups and issues at play. Trust becomes all the more important – and more difficult to gain – in a violent environment.


There was widespread scepticism in the room about whether journalists should place much faith in the lines spun by international agencies, the African Union or NGOs.

Mary Harper said that she always attempts to find out what clan her sources come from: “I try and get as much knowledge as I can from local journalists.”

Ph.D. researcher Mohamed Hassan also described how Somalis in London consuming the news four thousand miles away ran their own fact-checking operation: “We sift through the sources. We will call back home to check information; we don’t take things for granted, especially in a volatile environment.” Several participants thought that international journalists could make better use of this diaspora as well as journalists in Somalia.


The pressure on local journalists should not be underestimated. A week after our seminar the Mogadishu-based Shabelle Media Network reported that four gunmen had assassinated Ahmed Addow Anshur, 28, a news anchor for radio and TV. He was the ninth Shabelle journalist killed in a targeted assassination over the last seven years and the sixth journalist to be killed in Somalia this year. Since then, there have been another four journalists killed in 2012, as of October.

Many local journalists have no training at all for hostile environments. Very few of them would be able to afford bodyguards. Another participant described the risks a journalist may run, if he rejects a “brown envelope” from some local Mr. Big – not taking a bribe could be read as a declaration of hostile intent.

Jamal Osman also identified a corruption problem, but he blames the people who are paying, rather than local journalists themselves, who he encourages to avoid this type of interaction because it is damaging to their Somali communities.


Quman Akli, chair of Somaliland Focus and a trustee of Kayd Somali Arts and Culture, urged journalists, local and foreign, to think about how they portray individual victims and survivors in their journalism when they are talking about traumatic life events. “That publication goes on forever. You are capturing that person in one aspect of their life. Cover them in a richer illustration of their resilience, of their strength,” she urged.

Despite the risk, our participants agreed on the importance of perseverance in finding ways to produce quality, in-depth coverage. Access to Somalia for journalists based outside is improving, and so too are the opportunities for new angles. Rather than thinking that the Somalia story is the violence, perhaps we should look more at how people live their lives, around the violence. Osman suggested a simple procedure for getting ideas for stories that an outside audience can connect to. They should find a Somali woman older than themselves, and then start with the question, “What if this woman were my mother?”

Summary of Recommendations:  

  • Don’t neglect the ordinary; find stories in ordinary people going about their daily lives, albeit in a difficult context.
  • Use the Somali diaspora, who may have greater freedom to speak out than those inside the country. “We can have some sort of freedom, to criticize what is going on in Somalia,” said one participant. 
  • Watch Somali media, which gives a broader view than international channels, with stories reflecting everyday life.
  • If you are embedded with the military or an aid agency, challenge their narrative and agenda.
  • Talk to a wide-range of people, including Somalis who have gone through trauma of war and have escaped and tried to rebuild their lives, “yet have an intrinsic connection to the homeland,” as well as those in Somalia.
  • Make complaints to the media about inaccurate or simplified coverage. Monitor omissions in coverage. 
  • Don’t think of Somali subjects as the “other.” Journalists should think about what connects them with audiences. That will help people tell stories and humanise them. Ask, what do I share with these people?
  • Find ways to support local journalists, who are ill-trained or at risk of trauma or attack.