Journalism in the US: an Invisible Noose

The United States of America is built on the pillars of freedom, outlined in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!

These principles were put in place over 200 years ago. They are ideals. As Americans, we pride ourselves on the fact that our government continues to uphold these ideals even centuries later.

But as time goes on, the sharp reality is that our pride is becoming increasingly false. Civil liberties are in danger, in particular the freedom of the press.

In late 2013, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) released a scathing report on the Obama Administration and the press written by Leonard Downie Jr. with reporting by Sara Rafsky.

“U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but he has fallen short of his promise. Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press. Aggressive prosecution of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.”

An interesting point discussed in this report is the use of social media by the administration. By communicating directly with the public, this eliminates the need for traditional news media sources in order to obtain information about government activities. However, as a professor at the School of Media & Public Affairs at George Washington University points out, “‘Open dialogue with the public without filters is good, but if used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope.'” When the government controls the media, it controls the flow of information. In this way, the truth may become increasingly compromised over time.

Whether or not the public is aware, the US is becoming an increasingly hostile environment for journalists.

The War on Terror: Somalia

The War on Terror has greatly shaped the landscape of American foreign affairs over the last 13 years. It has affected our relationships with other countries, but worse, it has affected the situation on the ground in certain countries whose security situations are already unstable.

I am referring, of course, to Somalia.

Famine in Somalia is not a new phenomenon; the country has experienced famine on and off for thirty years. However, its most recent peak point of devastation was in 2011. Most credited the large-scale of the famine to the fact that al-Shabaab controlled many rural areas that were hit hardest. Because al-Shabaab inherently opposes Western influence, the militants prevented food aid from reaching the Somali people.

Madeleine Bunting wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian in late 2011 entitled, “Somalia was a sideshow in the war on terror – and is paying a colossal price”. The article acknowledges the role of al-Shabaab in exacerbating the famine, but Bunting places the true blame on the U.S. and its War on Terror.

“From the start Somalia was sucked into the war on terror, a hapless bit-part player in a much bigger global drama. The presence of a small number of people with links to al-Qaida was sufficient to provoke US anxieties that the country could become a haven for al-Qaida members fleeing Afghanistan. Soon after 9/11, the US froze the assets of Somalia’s biggest remittance agency and a pillar of the economy, al-Barakat, and many lost money. Another US counterterrorism measure criminalised organisations whose support could end up in the hands of those with terrorist links. This has made any negotiations with al-Shabaab over aid to the regions they control very difficult for aid agencies.”

What most fail to remember is that al-Shabaab did not begin as a terrorist group; it was a political party. It may have held a few anti-West beliefs and a few radical members, but in the post-9/11 world, that was enough to put al-Shabaab on the black list in our War on Terror. They became a target to our exclusionary policies, with disastrous results for the Somali people.

“‘A decade of disastrous US policy [has] ultimately strengthened the very threat it officially intended to crush’. Even more depressingly, […] Obama, far from drawing the war on terror to an end, has intensified its deployment, authorising and ‘normalising’ violent operations wherever the US deems fit with deeply destabilising consequences.”

In this way, the War on Terror has been devastating to the security of the Somali nation.

Wikileaks: Somalia

An interesting cable entitled “Libyan And Iraqi Recruiting Attracts Somali Applicants” originated from the American Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia in March 1986.

The cable describes recruitment efforts near the Libyan and Iraqi embassies “aimed at fighting ‘imperialism and Zionism’ and … freeing Arab lands from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf from foreign domination.”

Many of the cables describe tense situations between the Somalian government and Libyan nationals. However, this is the first cable to detail the explicit recruitment of Somalis by Libyans and Iraqis.

This information indicates that the roots of al-Shabaab were planted in 1986, twenty years prior to the apparent emergence of the foreign jihadists in 2006. This alters the common history of the radical group, suggesting that al-Qaeda actually had a hand in the early formation of al-Shabaab.

I find the comment at the end most interesting. The American diplomat writes, “The Somalis have a great deal of trouble getting enough recruits to man their own army […]. They probably will look askance at Somalis responding favorably to a foreign military recruitment.” In so many words, he astutely observes the delicate situation in Somalia that preceded the current civil war and subsequent government crackdown on enemies of the state.

It is notable that this was predictable from such a small action as foreign nationals handing out flyers. It begs the question, what is happening currently and confidentially on government wires that gives insight to future conflict internationally?

Non-Traditional Media in Somalia

I found that non-traditional media, particularly the Huffington Post, reports adequately on international news in Somalia.

As traditional news media does a fairly abysmal job of covering events in Somalia, I was surprised to find that the Huffington Post has an entire webpage dedicated to the country called Huff Post Somalia. The page does a particularly great job of covering U.S. counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabab. The posts vary from bloggers on the Huffington Post blog to full blown news articles cited primarily from Associated Press, etc.

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It is notable, however, that the audience of these articles appears to be Western audiences – not the Somali people.

Realistically, Somalis have limited access to non-traditional media such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, etc. Moreover, it is irrelevant to the situation on the ground. These non-traditional media sources succeed in boiling down the main points of a situation and spitting out factoids of information. These are easy to read and simple to understand for someone who is entirely unfamiliar with the situation, i.e. a foreign audience.

This is not to say that the non-traditional media should be discounted entirely. For a foreign audience, they do a great job of using short articles to get the main points of a story across.

The most interesting headline on Huff Post Somalia to grab my attention reads,

The Huge U.S. Counterterrorism Operation You’ve Probably Never Even Heard About.

The sub-headline reads “Every week, we bring you one overlooked aspect of the stories that made news in recent days. You noticed the media forgot all about another story’s basic facts?” Framing the article this way positions the audience to believe that the Huffington Post has an exclusive angle on the story that other media does not have. This increases the apparent value of the information.

In fact, the article is well-researched and well-sourced, full of hyperlinks to other articles justifying its information. Further, it does offer an interesting take on the situation, posing questions and taking opinions that traditional news media may have avoided.

“The U.S. military has said that it has no more than a ‘light footprint‘ in Africa. But it has a string of troops deployed across the continent, and has been rapidly but quietly expanding its operations since the Pentagon established an Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. With the secrecy surrounding intelligence operations and drone bases across the world, the full scale of America’s footprint in Africa may remain largely unknown.”

Overall, the Huffington Post does surprisingly well in reporting on Somalia. In my future research, I will definitely look to Huff Post Somalia, if only as a beginning step to finding other relevant, more reputable sources.

Social Media in Somalia

In BBC News’ profile of Somali media, it states:

“Social media use is on the rise. The most popular destinations are Twitter and Facebook. Islamists use social media to promote their aims while their opponents mount strong rebuttals.”

This excerpt aptly summarize the extent of social media use in Somalia. Social media spheres such as Facebook and Twitter have become virtual extensions of the war on the ground. Islamist militants, i.e. al-Shabaab, have taken to social media to disseminate information about their cause. The government has countered by targeting the militants online as well.

Meanwhile, citizens are beginning to access Facebook and Twitter, but they are not necessarily involved in the fight. According to trendsmap.com, the three trending topics on Twitter for Somalia are somalias, #somalia, and #mogadishu. Therefore, people are discussing their country, but no one is talking about #alshabaab.

It is interesting to note that AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, has been particularly active on Twitter. The official account, @amisomsomalia, posts frequent updates with how the mission is progressing (see example below).

The question remains if Somali citizens are actually accessing this information. The Broadcasting Board of Governors‘ statistics show that “about one-fourth [of Somali citizens] overall (25.4%) say they have accessed the Internet on their mobile [in the past week], and a similar proportion (21.8%) have accessed social networking sites.” As this continues to grow, it remains to be seen if citizens will begin to engage in the online war.

Citizen Journalism in Somalia

Citizen journalists essentially do not exist in Somalia.

In a warring state in which both sides continue to target journalists, no citizen in his right mind would willingly label himself a journalist without access to the professional security network of Somali journalists. The result of this is that most of the information coming from Somali news media is impartial, unbiased, and merely factual. This contradicts most of what citizen journalism is – pointed, political, purely perspectivist.

The closest we might come to finding a Somali citizen journalist would be to find a Somali citizen living abroad, away from the security apparatus within Somali borders. However, their access to Somali citizens within Somalia remains limited. BBC News reports, “Somalis abroad maintain an active online presence. But domestic web access is held back by poor infrastructure.” Further, Al-Shabaab militants strictly monitor and regulate Internet cafes in some areas. Despite this, the Broadcasting Board of Governors reports that “one in four Somalis (24.9%) now access the Internet every week.” Therefore, internet access and infrastructure is improving slowly.

Censorship remains rampant and violent. While the militants allow some access, disseminating any politically charged information would no doubt result in targeting the citizen journalist, possibly putting his life in grave danger.

Perhaps as social media becomes more popular, citizen journalism could also become more popular. However, until the government and the al-Shabaab militants ebb the flow of violence aimed at journalists, I cannot imagine that many citizens would attempt to establish themselves as Somali citizen journalists online.

Restrepo

Personally, I felt that Restrepo was neither balanced nor impartial but it was effective.

Restrepo was not balanced or impartial. Any piece of media that results from being embedded is inherently biased. The journalist is only embedded with one side, filming and fraternizing with one side only of the conflict. This does not allow them to accurately portray the nature of the conflict. Embedding shows a close up view of a situation without showing the bigger picture.

This does not mean it is not valuable, however. Restrepo was effective in portraying the day-to-day life of a soldier. Their daily interactions, from boring to silly to life-threatening, were all caught on camera. While less effective as a tool of news, it still told a story, and an entertaining one at that.

Restrepo was the most effective in conveying the nature of the US soldiers, which I believe is the most we can ask of a piece that directly results from embedding.

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