Speech by DSRSG Charles Petrie at the National Somali Journalists Conference

11 Sep 2009

Speech by DSRSG Charles Petrie at the National Somali Journalists Conference

Nairobi, 24 – 26 July 2009
H.E. Mr. Vice President of the Republic of Kenya,
H.E. Minister and Representative of Somalia,
Distinguished guests,
Thank you. I would like to thank the organizers of this most important conference for inviting the UN Political Office for Somalia to address you. Unfortunately the Special Representative Mr Ould-Abdallah is travelling. He asked me to send you his warmest greetings and address you in his place.

He attaches great importance to this effort. Journalists are at the forefront of our collective efforts to try and bring peace and stability, and more important, hope to the people of Somalia. It is impossible to talk about Somalia without mentioning the suffering of millions, understanding the sense of despair they have been living through after almost two decades of violence. It is against this background that this meeting, in fact all discussions on Somalia, must be mentioned.

It is often quoted that "Truth is the first casualty of war". In the context of Somalia, it could be said that journalists are like life-saving doctors. If the truth of what is happening in Somalia is hidden or concealed, then it will be very hard to put an end to the continuing cycle of misery and suffering.
Journalists in Somalia face two key dangers – the first is the fighting that has forced more than 100,000 to flee their homes in the past couple of months. Journalists need to be on the front line to report what is happening – but that also means they can become victims. The second is the direct threat of violence, targeted killings perpetrated against journalists. In this context the UN absolutely condemns the targeted murder of journalists and attempts at intimidation which have turned Somalia into one of the deadliest places for journalists to report from. Since January this year, six journalists have been killed in Mogadishu, four of whom appear to be victims of targeted assassinations including the director of Shabelle radio only last month, while others were killed or injured in crossfire. We know only too well of the threats, the text messages and phone calls, demands for money and resources used to try to force journalists to leave or to report only one side of the story.
The need for journalists in Somalia has never been greater. The journalists are critical to let the Somali people know what is really happening on the ground. Somalia is an oral culture; travellers bring news, people talk and exchange the latest whenever they meet. However in Mogadishu, for example, there are fewer and fewer people left to bear witness and they are unlikely to be able to get around the city to see the full picture. That leaves the floor open to rumours at best and deliberate propaganda and lies at worst. It is up to the journalists to tell the Somali people what is happening—to take informed decisions.
The journalists are also critical to let the international community really know what is happening. Somalia must be one of the very few places in the world that has no international press presence. Much of the country is too dangerous for international journalists to spend, at best, a day or two at a time. They too rely on Somali journalists –whether their own stringers or Somali media – to inform what is happening. This is a huge responsibility – a story on a Somali website can find its way onto Reuters and be printed round the world, be read by decision makers and lead to critical decisions on funding and support.
We salute the bravery of those reporters, their editors and media house owners who have chosen to stay in the country – and who have defied the threats to continue reporting objectively. They are the unsung heroes who will help to restore peace and stability to the country. Their important work must not be undermined by those who should not be called reporters – those with an agenda, who support violence and who are intent on destroying peace.
No one dealing with Somalia can fail to be impressed by the extraordinary number and range of Somali media outlets. This is unusual in a country that has been at war for 20 years. While the BBC and VOA Somali services continue to draw huge audiences, it seems every week a new radio station or website springs up. This thirst for news bodes well for the future – diversity is always healthy. However this means there are a huge number of new, often young untrained reporters who are on air and on the web. They may not understand the way journalism works or the need to be objective. The time may have come to concentrate more on the quality rather than the quantity.
The UN – and, more specifically, the SRSG – have worked hard to contribute towards improving the standards of journalism – we have funded and helped organize training for Somalia's journalists in the past and are doing so again this year through the National Somali Journalists Conference. Furthermore we have provided funding for Somali radio, television, websites and newspapers to put together material about the peace process, to hold discussions, involve clan elders, religious leaders, the youth, women, business and civil society. We have helped fund the UN media awards for journalism. We want to open up the discussion to all because the peace process belongs to all Somalis both inside the country and in the Diaspora.
The media war in Somalia is every bit as important as the fighting on the ground. The media are critical agents of peace. With the help of brave, well trained and objective Somali journalists, peace can return to Somalia so please never give up.

Thank you