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      The political economy of the media in the Somali conflict



            This article explores the political economy of the media in the context of weak formal state institutions in Somalia. Drawing on literature examining the political economy of war, the authors argue that, rather than being either a system of anarchy or a system in which journalists strive to serve normative functions of a fourth estate, the media in Somalia have their own internal logic that operates according to local norms and rules. This accounts for the media's ability to continue to grow despite the serious security concerns and the absence of strong state institutions and regulations, as well as predictable and regular revenue.

            Translated abstract

            [L’économie politique des médias dans le conflit somalien.] Cet article explore l’économie politique des médias dans le contexte d’institutions étatiques formelles faibles en Somalie. A partir de la littérature sur l’économie politique de la guerre, l’article soutient que plutôt que d’être soit un système d’anarchie soit un système dans lequel les journalistes se battent pour remplir des fonctions normatives d’un quatrième pouvoir, les médias en Somalie ont leur propre logique interne qui opère selon des normes et des règles locales. Ceci explique sa capacité à continuer à grandir malgré les inquiétudes sérieuses en matière de sécurité et l’absence d’institutions et de règlements étatiques forts, ainsi que de recettes prévisibles et régulières.

            Main article text

            Somalia is often described as lawless and the world's worst ‘failed state’, but across the region an expansive and competitive media system has emerged. Newspapers flourish in the northern, self-declared independent state of Somaliland, there are dozens of radio stations in and around the capital, Mogadishu, and satellite television stations based in London beaming into the region are so popular that candidates for political office make them central to their campaigns. There have also been major investments in new technologies from mobile communications infrastructure to establishing a hub for the Internet backbone along the coast of Somalia. By some accounts, and in comparison with neighbouring countries, the media has been thriving. This is not to negate the very real security issues that many Somali journalists have faced, and continue to face, but rather to recognise the rich media ecology that exists in the Somali territories and can challenge assumptions of what the media might look like in a country ravaged by war. This article asks how and why the media have continued to expand in Somalia despite the ongoing conflict. In the absence of state institutions, what has shaped their development? And what is the logic of the system that underlies their operations? In short, when so many journalists have been assassinated (with more than 50 journalists killed since 1992), why are people still interested in becoming journalists and why do media owners choose to continue to operate in such a challenging environment?

            In attempting to answer these questions, we peel back normative assumptions about the media in Somalia, which have too often been viewed through a narrow lens whereby journalists are largely seen as being (or aspiring to be) independent watchdogs holding government to account, obscuring more nuanced understandings about why journalists do the work they do and why media outlets are established. By drawing on broader literature about war economies in Africa, we contextualise our findings highlighting the intersection of key factors such as politics, identity, financial incentives and international assistance that shape the media industry, and thus reveal the diversity of ways media outlets function in such a complex environment. We argue that the media, similar to other sectors of the Somali economy, have come to reflect the political and economic realities of the conflict and, despite the security risks, many individuals and groups have found innovative ways to use the media for financial and political ends.

            The focus in this article is on radio stations in south Somalia. As the most accessible and popular medium, radio stations offer targeted insights into the complexity of the media economy. Moreover, by focusing on south Somalia, rather than the northern secessionist and more peaceful region of Somaliland, where the government is stronger and the press is more influential (private radio stations are not allowed by ministerial decree), we are able to concentrate on the impact of continuing violence and the absence of strong institutions and a formal economy on media development.1 We also consider the dominant role of international organisations in administering and shaping, or attempting to shape, many aspects of Somali society, including the media. This reflects a broader trend of increased engagement by outsiders to not only intervene in governance but also redefine political culture in fragile states that has been referred to as the establishment of ‘new protectorates' (Mayall and Soares de Oliveira 2011).

            We do not intend to diminish or downplay the significant sacrifices and ideals that some Somali journalists hold, but we wish to offer a different perspective. Journalists in Somalia have been under attack by a variety of forces and many have suffered terribly. These attacks and challenges have been comparatively well documented by human rights and advocacy groups (Bader 2014). Similarly, a series of reports (PCMLP Oxford 2010; BBC World Service Trust 2011; Infoasaid 2012) have mapped out the media outlets and journalists’ associations and, to a lesser degree, media development initiatives in Somalia. To date, research has not provided a holistic account of the actual workings and objectives of the Somali media system, the role it plays politically and how it is funded. In other words, there has been little research into the ‘whys', including why the Somali media have the form and architecture that they have and why they play the role that they do. It is impossible to fully answer these questions, but even by simply asking them, we start to understand the Somali media system ‘from below’ (Bayart, Mbembe, and Toulabor 1992), on its own terms and according to its own logic.

            The ‘why’ behind media actors’ incentives, decisions and behaviour is of particular interest to us, and requires the careful unpacking of normative assumptions. We pay close attention both to what people say is motivating them or informing their actions, and to how they behave. While it is common for journalists to cite that ‘paid news’ and corruption are prevalent across the media sector in south Somalia (interviewees will often claim that their own outlet is the exception to this, rather than the norm), narratives about the journalism profession are frequently phrased in the noblest of terms: the pursuit of truth, contribution to peace and informing fellow citizens. In some cases the international community promotes these narratives, which are quickly adopted by journalists seeking legitimacy. These may be values worth pursuing and encouraging, but focusing on them as normative benchmarks against which to evaluate the role of the media can obscure understanding of the way in which the media actually function. In some cases, the need for basic economic survival, or the economy of the media, can restrict media outlets’ ability to reach these higher objectives, even if some journalists and media owners aspire to them.

            We begin by situating the Somali media system within the broader literature on the politics of war economies, and the Somali conflict in particular. We will then seek to explain how the media have not only survived this tumultuous history, but have also grown and developed. In doing so, we examine the motivations behind investors and owners of media outlets, the journalists who go to work for these outlets despite low pay and considerable risks, and finally, how the international community plays a role in promoting and contributing to this specific media ecology.

            The data to support our argument have been collected through several rounds of field research between 2010 and 2013, in the Somali territories and among Somali communities living in Kenya and the UK. Over 45 radio station owners, journalists and media experts have been interviewed and while the majority of the interviews have been conducted in person, some of the interviews with informants living in parts of south Somalia had to be conducted over the phone. Equally, for the safety of our informants, names have largely been omitted.

            The political economy of the Somali conflict: implications for understanding the media

            By drawing on broader research into the political economy of conflict, including how economic motivations can spark and perpetuate civil wars in Africa (Duffield 1998; Keen 2005; Collier and Hoeffler 2004), along with more specific research on the Somali economy during the ongoing conflict, we are able to distil several features that characterise the political economy of the media system in south Somalia and, more generally, media systems in war environments.

            Somalia's informal economy has performed better than many predicted and has proved to be remarkably resilient, despite decades of civil war, drought and a lack of government regulation (Mubarak 1997; Grosse-Kettler 2004). As Shortland, Christopoulu, and Makatsoris (2013) and Webersik (2006) have argued, the economy has, in some ways, benefited from the collapse of the repressive regime of Siad Barre, as the fall of this government also meant the end of oppressive taxes, regulations and restrictive economic policies. The lack of a strong central government has allowed the informal sector to flourish. This is not necessarily indicative of a failed economy but rather a ‘radical economy' comprised of functioning sectors as well as outgrowths such as piracy (Oliveira 2013, 5) or the expansion of the trade in charcoal, which is benefiting elites in Mogadishu (Bakonyi and Stuvoy 2005; Webersik 2006) and supporting Al-Shabaab (Nellemann et al. 2014). Those that usually benefit from war economies, including Somalia's, are often a small elite that mostly do so at the expense of the majority of the population (Shortland, Christopoulu, and Makatsoris 2013, 546).

            While this informal economy allows for substantial business profits, and contributes to developing key infrastructure such as telecommunications lines, it does little to support the establishment of state institutions and in some cases may also undermine them. Much of Somalia's economy is linked to both legal and illegal investments from the diaspora, and the media sector is no exception (Duffield 1998; Little 2003; Grosse-Kettler 2004). An intimate knowledge of how to navigate complex local power dynamics privileges insiders and local investors rather than international ones, which explains why, for example, Somalia's telecommunications sector is unusual in its lack of competition from international mobile phone companies.

            The conflict in south Somalia reflects what Mark Duffield has termed ‘network war', which is characterised by ‘new forms of autonomy, resistance, and organized violence engag[ing] equally singular systems of international regulation, humanitarian intervention and social reconstruction’ (Duffield 2002, 153). The illicit nature of war economies, or ‘shadow networks', can also be seen as forms of social order in their own right (Reno 1999). The weak central government in south Somalia has, at times, frequently meant no formal taxes, but this has come with significant risks: businesspeople and investors often need to hire protection, partner with local authorities (and sometimes warlords), build infrastructure and contribute to community development projects. The successive national governments of Somalia have also been notoriously corrupt and this has often meant that doing business has required significant payouts to government ministers, clan elders or other public authorities.

            This high-risk environment has led to the rise of warlord-businesspeople, with businesspeople controlling militias and warlords partnering with businesspeople, creating an economy in which participating in the conflict is one of the few options available for impoverished youth to make an income (Grosse-Kettler 2004, 5). This phenomenon is not necessarily a direct cause for the continuation of the conflict, but does reveal powerful vested interests in maintaining the unfettered informal economic networks.

            The media have both reflected and participated in this informal economy as they vie for space, promoting the interests of various international actors, clans, transitional authorities and businesspeople. Research on the political economy of media has often remained restricted to stable countries, emphasising the confluence of business, government and societal interests influencing the content of media (Curran and Seaton 1997). Little has been done in relating this to how the media operate in war and far less on the economic aspects of journalism during war.

            Media, power and politics: from Siad Barre to Al-Shabaab

            When considering the political economies of ‘new protectorates’, we must remember that ‘economic agendas cannot be treated in isolation from a wider range of factors and motivations, including the key issues of power and identity, which have helped shape the character of individual war economies' (Berdal and Keen 2011, 224), and the same is true for the media economy. Thus, in order to understand the economic factors shaping Somali radio stations’ and journalists’ behaviour, it is necessary to consider the underlying identity and political factors that have informed and continue to shape the media. This is partly an exercise in archaeology, deciphering the impact of the shift from an environment where the media were almost entirely controlled by the military government of Siad Barre from 1969 to 1991 to the current weak, or absent, central government. The trend in war economies, where politics and identity tend to have a crucial role at the initial stages of a conflict, with economic interests becoming increasingly central over time, is also discernable in the media in south Somalia.

            When Barre was in power, Radio Mogadishu was the primary Somali radio station and, despite frequent critiques of government control, it has been credited with helping to foster a national identity through ambitious education and literacy programmes, as well as with training a generation of journalists that hold, or have held, senior positions in the main local, national and international media. Radio Mogadishu did also serve as a central tool to spread and promote the government's official ideology and agenda. Alternative avenues for speech, including private media, were widely restricted.

            Despite the Barre government's policies of censorship, there were significant efforts by government dissidents to use radio as a means to mobilise opposition. For example, the Somali National Movement, which fought to liberate the northern region of Somaliland, had an active radio during the insurgency, Radio Halgan. Almost as soon as radio was introduced in Somalia it became intertwined with the conflict and has continuously served as a key weapon in regional struggles, offering a vehicle for different political groups, or in some cases clans, to advance competing ideological perspectives on the nature and constitution of the Somali state.

            After the fall of the Barre regime in the early 1990s, the dominant state media and the restrictions on private outlets were quickly replaced by a proliferation of radio stations. This growth can be attributed to the lack of government regulation, the ubiquitous availability of cheap radios and the usefulness of radio in serving the interests of warlords, aspiring politicians or businesspeople. While some smaller radio stations representing community or non-profit groups emerged during the 1990s, these were the exception and remain so today. Many stations were often started with the financial assistance and expertise of Somalis from the diaspora; some of these stations managed to survive for years, others only months. Many had weak signals and reflected the interests of limited communities or neighbourhoods, and their influence and role shifted as the conflict evolved. International organisations, including the United Nations, also established radio stations to support their interventions.

            While warlord radio stations, or stations representing small political or armed factions, have continued to proliferate over the past 20 years, a new phase within the Somali radio sector was ushered in with the emergence of more commercial and professionally run stations in the late 1990s. With financial backing and expertise from the diaspora, as well as an agenda to provide consumer-oriented news and entertainment, stations such as Horn Afrik and Radio Shabelle consolidated their leading position in the Somali radio market and started to transform the media environment. Horn Afrik, established in Mogadishu in December 1999, is one of the most important media outlets to emerge out of the civil war. Founded by three businessmen from the Somali diaspora, Horn Afrik rapidly expanded and at its peak employed around 70 people. This station, like Radio Mogadishu during the Barre regime, left a prominent mark on Somali media, developing a generation of journalists, and not only providing news and information, but also engaging its audience in debate and dialogue through call-in programmes. Several of these journalists, by virtue of their experience at Horn Afrik, have continued to influence contemporary Somali media. These stations were also deeply intertwined with politics: their journalists were often active in government and inevitably were associated with particular political factions and interests.

            When Al-Shabaab seized power in 2008, the period of commercial growth and increasingly institutionalised radio stations came to a close, with some being permanently shut and others temporarily. All political actors, including both Al-Shabaab and government forces, have been accused of targeting journalists (Amnesty International 2010). Horn Afrik is no longer on air and Radio Shabelle continues in a significantly weakened form. In the absence of a local private station to match the stature of Horn Afrik, the international community has been supporting several initiatives, such as the UN/African Union Radio Bar-Kulan, the government-run Radio Mogadishu and Star FM, a private station headquartered in Kenya. Other stations that reflect the variety of ownership structures and agendas include: Al Andalus and Al Furqaan, both of which are run by Al-Shabaab; Al-Risaala, a station started by the former Minister of Information, Daahir Mahamoud Geele, to broadcast religious content as well as news and information; and Radio Galguduud, which broadcasts in the central region of Somalia and is owned by five local businessmen. There has been something of a resurgence in recent years with new stations taking advantage of some of the stability the new Federal Government has offered in parts of Mogadishu. In November 2012, 32 radio stations were reportedly operating in Somalia (Infoasaid 2012) and by 2013 the number grew to 57 (AU/UN IST 2013) with a similar number reportedly accessible in 2015 (AU/UN IST 2015). Similarly to their larger predecessors, these private stations are typically owned and supported by businesspeople who are often closely connected with the Somali diaspora.2 The blurred definition of businesspeople – mainly used by our informants to refer to persons who invest in the media sector but also have significant additional political and economic interests – partly contributes to the ‘opacity of media ownership in Somalia’ (IREX 2010, 349).

            In principle, when presenting their objectives or the mission of their media outlet, most radio owners, managers or senior editors adopt a narrative affirming the goal to provide ‘independent’ and ‘balanced’ information. They may also state the ambition of ‘developing journalists’ skills’ in order to ‘promote peace and mitigate violence and clan disputes', ‘to educate society’, to ‘change the minds of the youth’ or ‘provide the public with the information they need both on local and international issues’.3 Indeed, while several owners are reported to be ‘businesspeople’, seldom were economic, financial and profit objectives explicitly declared as among the main goals of their radio stations.

            Despite these stated objectives, private radio stations generally continue to be regarded as supporting individual ambitions and interests, or supporting political, tribal or religious factions (IREX 2010; BBC 2011; Infoasaid 2012). Notwithstanding the widespread recognition of this situation, media mapping studies have only offered introductions and overviews of Somali radio stations (i.e. where they are broadcasting from, the content of their programming and the intended audience), and have seldom systematically analysed or captured the motivations of radio owners and managers for opening and funding media outlets. For media development organisations engaged in Somalia, which seek to encourage a normative idea of the media as the purveyor of truth and objective journalism, their engagement may easily (and possibly uncomfortably and unavoidably) become political.

            The exercise of tracking media affiliation and allegiance, or even defining their institutional status, is further complicated by the volatility of radio stations and the sensitivity of the issue. But the close connection between media and politics is evident through the prevalence of journalists and media owners as politicians (and vice versa). Many journalists we interviewed were clear about their political aspirations and ambitions. As one interviewee who was forthcoming about his dual role in media and politics argued:

            [The roles] are not only compatible but they are also complementary. Most Somali people are interested in politics … they don't follow social issues that much. They like politics. On the other hand, if you are in politics, media is your channel of communication with the public … whether it is TV, radio or journal. So, the two are closely interrelated … you cannot differentiate media and politics. (Interview: Anonymous, December 2012)

            Examples of journalists who have moved into politics abound. Ahmed Abdisalam, the former founder and director of Horn Afrik, moved into a series of political positions in the Transitional Federal Government in 2008–2009, including Minister of Information, Security Minister and eventually Deputy Prime Minister. Dahir Gelle, the founder of Al-Risala and Radio Kor'an, was Minister of Information and Secretary of the Negotiations Team for the Islamic Courts Union in 2006. Mohamed Abdirahman Farole, the son of the former president of Puntland, was the owner of Radio Garowe and Garowe Online while serving as director of his father's media relations between 2009 and 2014. Abdiraman Omar Osman, who was director of Bar-Kulan until 2013 and later moved to become a senior advisor to the radio, is a spokesperson and minister in the current Somali Federal Government. And Yusuf Garad Omar, the former head of the BBC Somali Service, abruptly left in 2012 to launch his presidential campaign in Mogadishu.4

            Identity and clan allegiances are frequently regarded as the determining factor in violence and our interviewees noted that radio stations are overwhelmingly partisan and clan oriented. While this is an important explanatory factor for the polarised media and their role in the conflict, it is too often a central focus at the expense of issues such as class, ideology, and competition for economic and political resources. Access to substantial state resources as a politician makes media investments a potentially lucrative strategy. The connection between politics and access to state resources, as well as the potential this relationship has to undermine peace processes, has been well documented in fragile states, and particularly in the Somali case (Menkhaus 2007). As will be discussed in the coming sections, investing in the media, or using the media as a stepping stone for a political career, is a potentially lucrative strategy for people interested in gaining access to state resources, both symbolic and material.

            Turning a profit: financial incentives in the media

            While establishing or working at a radio station might help further one's political career, turning a profit or receiving a regular salary is challenging. Aside from the internationally backed stations such as Bar-Kulan or the government station, Radio Mogadishu, most radio stations struggle financially. Smaller stations face particular constraints as their restricted coverage and audience size do not attract large revenues from advertising or other practices of selling air space, including paid news. Larger stations are reported to be more profitable, although the extent to which they are is debatable, since media owners are reportedly ‘reluctant to be transparent and open the books’ (NUSOJ 2012). As one veteran journalist argued:

            In my ten-year experience in media, I have learned that you cannot make profit in media. This is because on many occasions, you would be required to subsidize it. At first you make investment, and later you subsidize it. It is possible that it reaches a point of break-even, and even sometimes makes a limited amount of profit. (Interview: Anonymous, December 2012)

            Therefore, many radio owners have to draw on multiple sources of revenue to ensure their outlet remains viable. Many radio stations claim that their most important source of income is from ‘advertisements’. In reality the fees that they are given by companies for formal advertisements are typically quite low. For instance, one Somali businessman from a major company said that his company would pay between US$500 and US$1000 annually for a fixed headline advertisement on a website. Most media outlets are candid that these fees do not come remotely close to sustaining their businesses. Only in exceptional cases, such as the popular Radio Shabelle, which does attract a large audience, are stations able to charge significant prices for advertisements, and consider this revenue as a major source of funding. A smaller source of advertising income for some radio stations comes through offering personalised messaging services for their audience, include sending greetings, condolences, notices and baafin. 5

            Despite the small amounts involved in formal advertising for most stations, some media companies have taken creative approaches to attracting businesses as clients. In Mogadishu, where there is a high level of competition among the radio stations, one company hired a well-known poet to compose text and music for advertisements. Some stations have also been proactive in airing advertisements without prior agreement with the business owner, in the hope that the owner will be impressed and the station will be granted contracts in the future. This reflects the challenges, particularly for smaller and newer radio stations, of entering the advertising market and their need to develop original and innovative strategies to try to compete. Additionally, the majority of stations do not have formal contractual arrangements with journalists. Instead, they only provide the infrastructure and framework for journalists to be employed informally, asking journalists themselves to be entrepreneurial and find their own means of subsistence, for instance by relying on practices such as paid news and shuruur.

            Informal employment

            In an economy affected by civil war, with few formal employment opportunities, journalism represents a relatively accessible option. There are low requirements for entry, both in terms of education level and work experience. Almost anyone with good connections and enough initiative can be a ‘journalist' and put themselves forward as correspondent or stringer for a media outlet.

            While the structure and size of private radio stations differ, the majority of their journalists are not paid by the station or they receive minimal compensation. They seldom have a formal contract and, particularly in the case of correspondents and stringers in remote areas, usually have multiple affiliations with several stations. Staff and journalists are embedded in a political culture partially organised along clan allegiances and often abide by these ties and obligations in their profession. Consequently, journalists are frequently hired because of clan or family connections (IREX 2010, 350) and, given the basis on which they were hired, tend to reflect and respect the interests and views of the media owners or the position of their clans and political factions (BBC World Service Trust 2011).

            In all Somali media outlets there has been, and continues to be, a high turnover of journalists. Many of the ‘older generation’ of journalists who were trained and gained experience working for the state broadcasters have fled abroad or are in more lucrative government and international positions. In some cases, they have been forced to leave when their outlets closed down owing to financial difficulties or for security reasons, such as being targeted or intimidated by Al-Shabaab. In the words of the editor of Radio Daljir, ‘most of the people are staying in Somalia with only one leg; they are looking for opportunities to go abroad or to get a better position' (Interview: Journalist, Radio Daljir, December 2012).

            The majority of journalists currently working in south Somalia are young people with little or no training in journalism, and they are often working as ‘interns' for the smaller radio stations, a common mechanism for giving an individual institutional backing with little financial commitment on the part of the station. Media internships vary in length but generally last from three to six months, and are framed as opportunities for ‘on-the-job training’, enabling the acquisition of practical skills. While aspiring journalists hope that an internship will lead to more permanent employment, this is rarely the case. More realistically, it serves as a pathway to other media outlets, particularly internationally financed ones, international training or opportunities to go abroad. It is only at larger outlets, which are backed by government or international funding, that journalists might expect paid work after their internships. The head of Radio Mogadishu summed up the incentive structure when he noted:

            We just give them training. They may take five, six or eight months. We train them on the different aspects of the radio. We send them to attend workshops and trainings we get from international organizations. (Interview: Director of Radio Mogadishu, December 2012)

            Even when journalists do receive a salary, it is often informally and irregularly paid. The most commonly cited amount paid to journalists is between US$40 and US$50 per month, which varies according to the journalist's level of education and experience and, not surprisingly, there is a gap between the salary of journalists who work for the smaller radio stations and those who work for internationally sponsored radio stations. Some media representatives interviewed avoided calling it salary, preferring terms such as ‘stipend’ or ‘incentive’. Others indicated that they do not pay salaries at regular intervals but that they might offer money for specific occasions or when asked by the journalist.

            Paid news and political advertisements

            In an environment marked by low revenues for media outlets from commercial advertisements and by low or no salaries for journalists, a main source of income for radio stations is the practice of paid news, which blurs the line between advertising and news. Politicians, clan leaders and influential figures in Somalia regularly use the media to help implement their agendas. Paid news can take several forms and one of the most common, as the name suggests, is for politicians to simply pay a media outlet to get their news and statements aired. As one journalist described:

            Today we know that the media has become a court. If somebody is complaining about anything, from the government, from a clan or from any other institution, the first thing the person does is to speak through the media. What the person wants is to broadcast his opinion and objectives. So, since it is important for him that his voice should be heard, the result is [paying the media]. (Interview: Journalist, December 2012)

            Politicians may also be invited to give an interview or contribute to some of the programmes, and will pay the media outlet to have their interview promoted to the level of ‘priority news’.

            In Mogadishu, there are programmes on politics in the evening. In these programmes, politicians come and pay the radio and then they are interviewed. The next day, the interview is turned into news with a lot of exaggeration. (Interview: Deputy director of a private radio station, December 2012)

            Election time is also a particularly lucrative period for radio. For example, several journalists, from stations both large and small, openly discussed their financial arrangements with the different candidates to run their campaign advertisements during the 2012 presidential elections. The majority of the stations did not acknowledge or label these political messages as advertisements, but would simply broadcast them as news. While some of the larger and more institutionalised stations argued that this practice went against their editorial standards, businessmen have noted that even programmes on these stations are ‘easily bought'. Despite many journalists criticising the approach as unethical and not admiting to taking money for these arrangements, during our interviews there was near-unanimous confirmation of the existence of such a culture.


            Closely related to paid news is the controversial practice of shuruur, through which most journalists make their work with radio stations profitable in the informal economy. Shuruur refers to payments made to reporters and stringers by sources, such as politicians, businesspeople and government officials (IREX 2010). It accounts for a significant portion of journalists’ income and is a factor in explaining why young people are willing to be journalists despite the security concerns and informality of employment offered by most stations.

            Shuruur is most frequently paid when politicians or businesspeople hold press conferences. It is typical for the journalists present to be offered a ‘token of gratitude’, generally around US$10 for a short piece, but possibly more for journalists from popular media outlets. As one journalist noted, the following is widely expected:

            When you go to an important person and ask for information, he will not give such information if he does not have money to pay the journalists. He should prepare money when he is giving news. (Interview: Director of a private radio station, December 2012)

            This practice makes some politicians or business leaders reluctant to release information to the media because of the expectation that they will then have to pay to have their information accurately conveyed.

            As part of this competitive and politically charged environment, freelance journalists often actively seek out stories from a company or politician and then go as far as paying the media house to have it aired. This was reported as common among television stations, but it can be seen as an emerging trend at radio stations. A businessman explained a typical scenario representative of the system: a freelance cameraman might approach a businessman with a proposal to do a feature on an aspect of the latter's company in exchange for a certain sum; the cameraman would then be obliged to pay the station around 25% of what the businessman paid him to have the report aired, thus representing a significant source of revenue for both the journalist and the media outlet.

            Shuruur is often criticised by owners and journalists themselves: ‘dirty money’, ‘corruption’ and ‘bribery’ are used to describe the practice. Many interviewees saw it as having a negative impact on the conduct of journalists, on the quality of the radio and its programmes, and on the perception of the profession in general, eroding what few journalistic ethics exist. Some media owners, however, argued that the revenue model is not necessarily incorrect, but stressed that the funds should be channelled through the station directly in the form of paid news or advertisements. As acknowledged by some of the participants in this research, such forms of news may lead to problems for both the radio station and its journalists:

            If we take money from these politicians, it results in problems for us especially if we decide not to air their news. They also challenge us when we edit their news to make it compatible with our policies and the general interest of the community. (Interview: Director of a private radio station, December 2012)

            Shuruur has been seen by some to be a major factor in encouraging violence towards journalists. For example, in October 2012, the Somali journalist Jamal Osman wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper arguing that Somali journalists were ‘dying from corruption as much as conflict' (Osman 2012). Claiming a link between shuruur and the targeting of journalists sparked a strong reaction on online forums and among the media community in Mogadishu, which labelled Osman a traitor. Nevertheless, many of the journalists we interviewed did acknowledge the fluidity of the profession and the riskiness of shuruur. The editor of a private radio station explained how two of the journalists who went with him to report on the Somali pirates ended up staying and joining them:

            Now if you see them, you would never believe they were journalists. Their culture changed. Now they cannot accept this meagre income from journalism. I believe that what ruined them was the journalistic ethics they broke in the first place. Others have joined warlords in the same way. They started by working with the warlord to submit his news, and after some time, they became part of the militia. That is one of the reasons they are killed. I have seen so many cases … (Interview: Director of a private radio station, December 2012)

            Stations that do attempt to restrict the influence of shuruur adopt different tactics including refusing the news from journalists suspected of such behaviour or suspending these journalists from work. It is, however, a luxury for an outlet to be able to take a strong stance on shuruur. From the journalists’ perspective, most of the time shuruur constitutes an essential part of their income. In the case of unpaid journalists, interns or volunteers, shuruur might be the only revenue from their work. Under such conditions, without more formal employment providing a liveable wage, it is likely that media owners and managers deciding to forbid the practice would force their staff to quit. When asked if shuruur is allowed at his radio station, the owner of a medium-sized station claimed that it was not, and argued: ‘That is the main reason why our best journalists have left us. Most journalists will not tolerate [having to refuse shuruur], and they prefer to join other media outlets' (Interview: Director of a private radio station, December 2012).

            Paradoxically, for the journalists and media outlets that claim to not accept shuruur, it can be more difficult to get news both because of the difficulties in retaining journalists and because, in an environment where politicians are accustomed to paying for their news to be released, they may be surprised at, and even suspicious of, those who refuse these incentives.

            International efforts to shape a new media market

            A significant source of income for radio stations and journalists comes from donor countries (such as the US government), international organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work in the media development field. Assistance to the media sector is often informed by an effort to significantly restructure the practices and structure of the system, but in the context of ongoing violence and fragile state institutions, this may have unintended impact.

            External and internal actors have sought to influence the news agenda of radio stations through media development projects sponsored by international organisations, which have also served as mechanisms for income generation. Media development programmes are mostly about raising public awareness for humanitarian and social issues but they may also address political issues. For example, stations such as Star FM and Radio Daljir run civic education programmes for the governments of Kenya and the Federal Government of Somalia that have addressed a range of issues from voting to religious extremism, while the BBC Somali Service and Universal TV have organised programming for the UN and partner organisations on issues surrounding the Federal Government's current draft constitution. While this is an important part of the constitution-making process, given the controversial role of the UN in Somalia, it is highly political.

            International collaborations and participation in these media development projects are also profitable for individual journalists, as they inevitably support work opportunities that otherwise would not necessarily be economically sustainable. Similar to the practice of paid news for covering press conferences and events by businesspeople or government officials, it is typical to receive at least US$10 for attending a day of training or a workshop hosted by a media development project. Attending a number of such programmes can thus be an important salary contribution, so much so that there is a term in Somali, beesha caalamka, to refer to those who may pretend to be ‘journalists’ to receive shuruur for attending a press conference or training (BBC World Service Trust 2011). The perception of training and workshops as merely income-generating opportunities undermines and jeopardises the effectiveness of media development and capacity-building initiatives. Given that they are externally driven initiatives, it can be difficult for those responsible for such programmes to verify whether the people attending fulfil the required criteria in terms of education level, work experience and current employment within a media outlet. One NGO staff member was candid in her assessment of this challenge, admitting that they ‘do not really know who is participating' in some training sessions (Interview: Anonymous, June 2013).

            International media assistance also has the potential to legitimise certain outlets by providing direct funding and support for operations, while marginalising others. The BBC World Service Trust, for example, has a project that provides support to six radio stations including Radio Hargeisa, Radio SBC-Puntland, Radio Galkacyo, Radio Dhusamareb, Radio Xurmo and Radio Shabelle. The two-year programme, entitled ‘Strengthening Radio Stations in Somalia to Promote Human Rights, Peace and Governance', aims ‘to enhance the reach, levels of audience participation and professional capacity of Somali media’ (BBC World Service Trust 2011), through capacity-building of radio stations and media-related training for civil society organisations, in particular women's and youth associations. Similarly, Star FM currently has a partnership with the international NGO Internews. With funding from USAID, Internews is supporting Star FM to expand its activities in south Somalia, through the establishment of three new stations in Mogadishu, Garowe and Gulguduud, and by building studio infrastructure as well as training journalists on conflict reporting, mediation and community programming in partnership with civil society. While media development assistance may offer the opportunity to provide valuable support to the media sector, such initiatives are likely to be political (even if unintentionally so) and have an impact on the economy of the media industry as a whole, a factor that is often overlooked in the more benign-sounding objectives of ‘enhancing professional capacity’.


            Significant efforts are underway to restructure the Somali media system. The Federal Government has introduced a new draft media law that will help to regulate the industry, drawing on international norms and standards. Implementation of this law will, however, undoubtedly be a challenge given that media are already regulated by a variety of actors according to different customs or local regulations and accountable to different power relationships across the Somali territories (Stremlau 2012, 2013a).

            The government has also emphasised the need to improve the security situation for journalists. Yet, similar to the constraints in implementing new media legislation, the weak reach of the Federal Government and their ability to exercise power outside of Mogadishu restrict their ability to address this. As part of an effort to bolster its capacity, the government has taken initiatives to improve its own communications, both online and through more traditional means. Efforts are also being made for Radio Mogadishu and Radio Bar-Kulan to merge and transition to a public service broadcaster.

            Media reform will be daunting. As this article has argued, the political economy of the media in Somalia, and in war economies more generally, has its own logic – its own set of incentives, practices and rules. Often overlooked, and uncomfortable for those that ascribe to a more normative role of media, is the reality that these rules have been influenced by the interests of owners and businesspeople and by the practices of journalists who have also sought political and financial opportunities. International efforts, as in the case of ‘new protectorates’, to restructure the media and craft a system where journalists adhere to some of journalism's key tenets like ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’, face significant challenges given the reality of the political economy of the Somali media. Many owners and journalists interviewed are well aware of best practices and ethical standards, but the nature of the conflict has made it difficult for these ideals to be implemented.

            Rather than being driven by normative and de-contextualised assumptions on the role of media in state-building processes, policies and initiatives aimed at improving the media environment in Somalia should acknowledge the creativity of Somali media: although they are shaped and influenced by financial constraints and incentives forged by decades of conflict, the media continue to have a significant role in Somali society. Initiatives and policies that build on the existing structures and logic of the system, in other words, reforms that go with the grain, are far more likely to be successful in proposing meaningful regulatory frameworks or effective actions to support media outlets and improve the working conditions of journalists.


            We are grateful for the support of Adan Mohamud Hussein during the research. We would also like to thank Iginio Gagliardone, Dane Degenstein and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful input.

            Notes on contributors

            Nicole Stremlau is Head of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy and a Fellow at Wolfson College at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the role of media and ICTs in conflict in Eastern Africa and questions of governance, law and state building in the region.

            Emanuele Fantini is a Research Fellow at the Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Turin, Italy. His research focuses on the political sociology of state formation in Ethiopia; the political economy and the moral economy of water with a focus on privatisation of water services and transnational water movements; and media, politics and conflicts in Africa.

            Ridwan M. Osman is a doctoral candidate at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, UK. His research focuses on citizenship and education for citizenship in Somaliland, the relevance of Somali traditions for modern governance and education, and the role of media in contemporary Somali politics and conflict.

            Disclosure statement

            No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.



            The authors have explored media in Somaliland in previous research. See, for example, Stremlau (2013b).


            The role of the diaspora in supporting the media is central and can take different forms. It is not always direct investment in the radio station but many journalists are reliant on remittances and some families may regard these contributions as supporting the media work of their family members. Family frequently make contributions in kind, such as developing and managing a website for a media outlet. In some cases the founders of the radio station who may have been from the diaspora but are no longer living in Somalia continue to subsidise the station after they leave.


            These objectives were reported by our interviewees. The first objective was cited by the Editor of Radio Daljir, the Vice-Director of Radio Goobjoog and the Director of Radio Al-Risala; the second by the Chairman of Radio Voice of Peace and the Director of Radio Bar-Kulan; the third by the Manager of Star FM; and the fourth by the Director of Radio Simba and the Director of Radio Dhusamareb.


            There is also a similarly strong link between media and politics in Somaliland. In 2011, for example, when the Kulmiye Party came to power some sympathetic journalists were given posts at the Ministry of Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the President's Office.


            Baafin refers to the radio programmes that Somali families call to search for relatives who were children, mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, and who went missing during the civil war.


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            Author and article information

            Review of African Political Economy
            Review of African Political Economy
            March 2016
            : 43
            : 147
            : 43-57
            [ a ] Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford , Oxford, UK
            [ b ] Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Turin , Turin, Italy
            [ c ] Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge , Cambridge, UK
            Author notes
            [* ]Corresponding author. Email: nicole.stremlau@ 123456csls.ox.ac.uk

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            Page count
            Figures: 0, Tables: 0, Equations: 0, References: 30, Pages: 15

            Sociology,Economic development,Political science,Labor & Demographic economics,Political economics,Africa
            travaux ménagers,Somalia,violence,maîtresse,political economy of media,main d’œuvre,media and conflict,failed states,politics,reproduction sociale,femmes de Marikana,travail dans les mines


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