Somali journalists banned from covering insurgents

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NAIROBI, Nov 27 (Reuters) The mayor of war-wracked Mogadishu has banned Somali media from publishing interviews with government opponents, or reporting on military operations and the city's refugee exodus, journalists and watchdogs said.

The measures announced by mayor and former warlord Mohamed Dheere put further pressure on journalists reeling from a string of assassinations, shutdowns, arrests, and threats from both sides during this year's Islamist-led insurgency in Somalia.

With most foreign journalists staying clear of the Horn of Africa nation for security reasons, local reporters take huge risks to cover the daily violence, mainly in Mogadishu.

Seven local reporters have died this year, most shot dead in targeted killings yet to be investigated.

Media heads, whom Dheere called in yesterday, said they were told they can operate only if they avoid covering the exodus from Mogadishu, which the United Nations puts at 600,000 people this year, more than half the city's population.

They said today they were also told that interviews with insurgents and prominent anti-government figures, such as exiled Islamists in Eritrea, would not be allowed, neither would reports on government military operations against the rebels.

''The mayor said we will be open today on those conditions,'' said Muqtar Mohamed Hirabe, acting director of Shabelle, a local radio station closed earlier this month by the government, the eighth time it was forced off air this year.

The government accuses Somali journalists of fanning the insurgency by giving air-time to its leaders and exaggerating their attacks. But Islamists have also criticised the media at times for being too close to the government.

Dheere was again speaking with journalists today to discuss the status of three closed radio stations.

''We met the mayor again today and we've been given the same conditions which we were told to approve,'' said local journalist Ismail Ali. ''We told him we would think about them. The mayor said the stations would stay closed until they are approved.'' Local non-governmental organisation, the Somali Human Rights Defenders Network, said the ''oppressive'' and ''intolerable'' new media directives contravened the statutes under which Somalia's transitional federal government was established in 2005.

''Somali journalist have had their bitter share of human rights violations in their home country with numerous arrests, detention, killing and threats that forced a huge number of journalists to flee to Nairobi,'' it said in a statement.

''Any attempt to silence the media risks denying the public their rights to information which is not only a provision of the transitional federal charter but also several international instruments to which Somalia is signatory.'' Neither Dheere, nor government officials, could be reached today for comment on the media directives.

Meanwhile, six people were killed in Mataban district, 420 km north of Mogadishu, when Ethiopian troops opened fire after an ambush by suspected insurgents, officials said.

''Insurgents attacked the Ethiopians while passing through Mataban,'' Abdulahi Warsame, a local official in the district, told Reuters by phone.

''We could hear the exchanges of gunfire. ... People began running away and the Ethiopians opened fire.'' REUTERS RJ VC1828

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