Press Freedom: A Necessary Condition for Democracy?

Somalia has been seemingly moving in the direction towards great development and democratization. As of August 2012, Somalia has a new Constitution, elected a new government, put a new cabinet into place, and has been working to advance talks with Somaliland. Given the recent successes in this country, the United Nations voted to remove the arms embargo against Somalia and international embassies have, once again, begun to open in Somalia. Somalia’s human rights record, however, specifically in the case of press freedom, demonstrated that this movement towards democracy is stagnant.

The Provisional Constitution of Somalia, adopted on August 1, 2012 outlines the essential rights and freedoms of every Somali. As such, article 18 contains the prescribed freedom of expression and opinion. Article 18 (1) states “every person has the right to have and express their opinions and to receive and impart their opinion, information, and idea in any way,” and article 18(2) states “freedom of expression includes freedom of speech and freedom of media, including all forms of electronic and web-based media.” Inherent in these articles is press freedom, the capacity for one to publish an article using any outlet, on any topic, provided that it does not violate the rights of another (ie. defamation). Yet in Somalia, this is not the case 

The Press Freedom Index ranked Somalia 175th in 2013. This ranking, out of a total 179 countries, means Somalia has one of the world’s lowest rankings in terms of press freedom, surpassed by only Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Syria. Not only is media censorship in Somalia a problem, but Somalia also continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to operate. In 2012, 18 media workers were killed in Somalia, most of which were the result of targeted killings rather than frontline fatalities. The Somali government has vowed to stop the attacks against journalists, but has not followed through on its promise. In the first quarter of 2013, 5 journalists were killed in Somalia. The country’s problems with press freedom, however, are not limited to killing journalists; they also include suppression of the journalist voice through imprisonment.

Adbiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, a Somalia freelance journalist, faced charges including insulting a government body, making false accusations, and seeking a profit for these accusations. The reason for these charges: Ibrahim interviewed a Somali woman who was allegedly raped by 5 government soldiers.  The Somali woman who was interviewed was also imprisoned. Even though the article was never published, a Mogadishu court sentenced both Ibrahim and the alleged victim to one year in prison on the basis that medical evidence proved that the woman was not raped. The case was brought the Somali high court where both parties were eventually released. In reference to Ibrahim, Adidi Abdillahi Ilkahanaf, Chairman of the Somali High Court, stated that there was no evidence to support the charges brought against him and consequently, on March 17th, Ibrahim was released.

This case is of particular concern as it not only is a clear violation of press freedom, but this violation was an attempt to suppress victim’s right. Whether she was raped or not is not the issue at hand here, but rather that her case was dealt with through imprisonment and media suppression, rather than through the use of the judiciary. Human rights activists contended that the imprisonment was politically motivated, aimed at covering up the rampant sexual abuse of women in Somalia. The fact that the Somali President refused to intervene is evidence in this regard.

Democracy is supported by freedom of the press. When the press is able to report on issues of interest, be they in favor or against the government in power, the system is legitimized by its transparency. When people are able to express their opinions in a non-violent way,  feel as though those opinions are being heard, and feel as though they are inspiring change with in the government/country, then the transition towards a democratic society can progress. However, a society that continues to block press freedom, freedom of expression, and cover up human rights violations will not be able to make the transition towards democracy.

Yes, Somalia has made some great strides in the past year, and yes, they are on a path towards something, but Somalia is a critical fork in the road. It can either choose to continue moving towards democracy, opening its country the rights and freedoms inherent in a democratic society, or it can choose to continue restricting human rights and consequently risk loosing any gains it has previously made. Press freedom in an instrumental step in the process towards democracy.


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Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340.