Journalism is a profession, not a cover

The kidnapping of two French government security advisors in Mogadishu on Tuesday caused outrage among media workers and rights groups - after reports surfaced that they had been posing as journalists.
Somalia Al Shabab military group
Al-Shabab fighters outside of Mogadishu, Somalia, December 2008

Two French government security advisors were kidnapped in Mogadishu on Tuesday, reportedly after having posed as journalists.

The abductees were sent on a mission by the French government’s General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) to provide security assistance to the forces of Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Somalia's president, whose control over the country is limited. Fighting continues in Somalia where anti-government forces al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam launched an offensive against government forces on May 7, which resulted in the killing of about 300 people and forced tens of thousands to flee the capital.

The French advisors were kidnapped from the Sahafi Hotel, in the safest part of the capital. While Somali officials are arresting people they say were involved in the incident, there has been very little outcry against the workers’ irresponsibility in posing as journalists and the implications this can have on media workers.

Six journalists have already been killed in Somalia this year. Reporters Without Borders’ 2008 press freedom index ranks Somalia 153rd out of 173 countries, calling it “Africa’s deadliest country for the news media.” Kidnappings of journalists and humanitarian aid workers have also become common in Somalia.

In Somalia, which has a history of Western interference, the choice to work as security personnel on behalf of the government is not without consequences. A journalist, on the other hand, is theoretically supposed to work on the ground, independent of governmental bodies. By posing as journalists the French workers blurred this line, and put media workers in more even danger, providing a justification for governments and armed groups to attack journalists.

Reporters Without Borders released a report condemning the move. “Being a journalist is not a cover, it is a profession. We hope these two advisers are freed quickly but we are shocked that they were passing themselves off as journalists. They were on an official mission and had no need of cover. Their behaviour endangers journalists in a region where media personnel are already in danger.”

Somalia's defence minister Mohammed Addi Gandhi told Radio France Internationale that the kidnapping is not political. "They are an armed group. They might want a ransom, but it's not a political kidnapping," he said. "They're people who profit from the violence in Mogadishu." He said that "contact" had been made with the kidnappers but gave no further details on that, the arrests or the troop searches. However, no group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. News reports are quoting both pro-government and anti-government forces as possibly responsible, as well as arguing over the fate of the hostages. "Al-Shabab wants to take the Frenchmen from Hizbul [al-]Islam, they are on the verge of fighting," a senior police officer named Abiqadir Odweyne told Reuters. He added, "Al-Shabab wants to kill the Frenchmen and Hizbul [al-]Islam refuses. The situation is not good."

Al-Shabab began as the military wing of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), the movement that ruled much of Somalia in 2006 and parts of the country, until Ethiopia, supported by the US, invaded Somalia and drove the UIC out of power, under the pretext that the group has ties to Al-Qaeda (a claim that has yet to be proven.) The Transitional National Government was installed and a guerrilla campaign against the newly instated ruling forces began. Al-Shabab has however become independent of the UIC after differences emerged between the two. At the end of 2008, Ethiopia withdrew most of its forces, leaving the country unstable.