Dear Jamal Osman, people who kill journalists, kill journalists; A discussion on ‘native informants’ and privilege

As a Somali journalist, I’m ashamed to be associated with the profession, especially when operating in the country. Somali journalists fail to recognise their basic responsibilities to the public “ Jamal Osman

In recent days, many of us active in the Somali social media realm have been engrossed in Jamal Osman’s piece in the Guardian entitled, “Somali journalists are dying from corruption as much as conflict”-causing a firestorm of controversy that has many hailing Jamal Osman as a trailblazer, and others critical of his laissez faire approach to the political violence against Journalists in Somalia. I sat with my thoughts about this article for a few days, and really wanted the implications of his accusations and claims to simmer before I levied any accusations or offered any praise. The issue of political violence against one of our most hardworking, undervalued, marginalized citizens; Somali journalists, is one that can easily ignite emotional rhetoric, often derived from political allegiances, and at times, privilege. Ahh, that word, privilege; a word I aim to dissect in relation to Jamal Osman’s recent parlay into the political nature of media in Somalia, and believe much of his arguments borrow heavily from the comforts that are a western address and Channel 4 as your employer.

Now this isn’t’ an attack on Jamal Osman, and many of us political/cultural junkies are hip to his impressive CV, and admirable list of prestigious accolades, and it need not be stated that he is a respected member of our community, and trusted amongst his colleagues, but in this case, I believe Jamal Osman has concocted an outrageously irresponsible, slanderous and dangerous piece that achieved gains in only normalizing volence against Journalists in Somalia; But also serving as a political tool that panders to Western caricatures  of Somalia as a land without hope, riddled with corruption, depravity, violence, and he did this in a British newspaper.

Now before I get into some of my issues with his claims, I need to clarify my role in this discussion, and in anticipation of any critiques against my impending critique of Osman’s piece. I feel the need to address any perceived bias, and efforts to silence discussion on my part, and use this an opportunity to discuss the nuances between productive discussions that address taboo political/cultural norms, and arguments that manipulate facts, distorting reality, and in essence, serving only as a caricature of Spivak’s native informant (the savage ‘other’ constructed by colonial imagination, and manipulated to serve as a gateway between the west, and ‘us’),-thus failing to change the material circumstances of the society one aims to change.

I run a political blog with a very liberal slate, and often many of my critics accuse me of pandering to western narratives, and yet I continue to tackle issues involving women’s rights, religion, cultural norms, sexuality, identity politics, and a plethora of other topics that many would rather we not ‘wash in public’. Now my responsibility, although just a blogger, is to be mindful of my privileged position as a holder of a western passport, communicating to my people in a language that isn’t indigenous to us, and preaching to them about values they may find hostile. Now that doesn’t mean my role as a member of the Somali Diaspora alleviate Somalis from my critique and deconstruction of our political landscape, but it does mean that I must be mindful of my privilege, my biases, and how some of my deeply held principles may perhaps give ammunition to voices who seek to marginalize and silence the voice of Somalis, and Africans at large.  And that privilege is my cross to bear as I navigate these political discussions, which call accountability and transparency of my own political agenda. And I’m just a blogger, so you can imagine, what responsibility you have as a Journalist operating in Britain, criticizing without a shred of tangible evidence, a group of marginalized Somalis who risk life and limb to report the news. I tell you these facts  in anticipation of rebuttals that might dismiss me as simply a disgruntled Somali in opposition  to rigorous introspection of our cultural and political problems, and  if that’s your position, I encourage you do a quick run through of the topics I cover, as you may find your charges to be without merit. I don’t encourage the silencing of dissent, and believe we Somalis must poke at these painful political/cultural places, if we’re serious about our attempt to rehabilitate our fractured nation. In other words, let’s discuss our issues, but what I will not do, is support lazy journalism cushioned and paid for by western media conglomerates, to simply regurgitate the clichéd motif of ‘Africa as a bastion of corruption’.

Jamal Osman’s article provided zero evidence of his claims, and instead was riddle with dangerously generalized statements like, “The sad reality is that such behavior can be witnessed on a regular basis. Something I often say to fellow Somali journalists is that we were meant to expose corruption; instead, we are the bad guys.” As an avid reader of the Guardian, I’m left wondering if such vague and unsubstantiated statements from an English Journalist conducting an expose into the corrupt British media landscape would make it past an intern in the quality control assembly line. And it doesn’t stop there, Osman continues to provide us with quantitative and qualitative evidence like, ” I can even recognize if the reporter was happy with the amount of money that she or he was paid”. It seems Osman here is operating with ‘truthiness’ as his guide, a political term, coined by satirist Stephen Colbert to name the phenomenon of constructing truth claims from gut reactions, and emotional responses. I’m sorry ladies and gentleman, but I’m at a loss for words, and left wondering when did anecdotes become a legitimate source? I’m not suggesting that Osman is incorrect about his observations, but as a Journalist who is entrusted and paid to uncover hard-hitting facts, and to provide well-researched journalism, I suspect this caliber of investigative journalism might be problematic- Especially, when one is aiming to dismiss the violence against Journalists as a product of their own moral decline.

Now let’s assume Jamal Osman is right, and that media landscape in Somalia is rift with greedy, tribalistic, incompetent journalists making it hard for real honest guys like him-Let’s imagine that narrative as true for a minute. Dare I then ask, Monsieur Osman, what do you think might cause a journalist living and working in Somalia to take bribes? As a cultural/politic junkie, I have a propensity for valuing the importance of variables in analyzing a particular social/political phenomenon. Before one speaks of corruption amongst Somali Journalists, I’m left wondering about economic, political landscape that offers little protection and financial assistance for the men and women who risk their lives to provide the masses with an inclusive look into post-conflict Somalia, often without the financial and political stability afforded to Channel 4’s Jamal Osman.

I think context and nuance are an integral part of analyzing any social/political cause, especially when this analysis aims to explain why our Journalist are being hunted down by powerful factions, terrorist groups, and corrupt government officials. Osman provided little information on the demands made by government officials, and other factions groups against these journalists, and much of his analysis was one-sided, biased, and without factual merit. Since, we’re a fan of anecdotal evidence, I know of many Journalists who’ve had their lives threatened if they did not provide favorable reporting in defense of certain political leaders, and believe any discussion about media corruption should also involve the powerbrokers in this region, namely IGOs, NGOs, AMISOM, government officials, warlords, and the bane of our existence,  dear old Al-Shabaab.

Interesting note on Jamal’s analysis of rehabilitation tactics against journalists, Al-Shabaab labels as pro-government hacks. Osman observes, “Second, those journalists working for government-run or pro-government media are seen as “soldiers” by opposition groups such as al-Shabaab, the Islamist group linked to al-Qaida”, a presumptuous statement that gives legitimacy to the grievances of a terrorist organization that routinely executes local Somalis for selling tea to government officials as evidence of their double-dealing espionage. This is the group Osman aims to provide legitimacy with. According to his logic, if there is suspicion of AL-Shabab as the culprits of these crimes, it must point to corruption on the part of the victims journalists-An argument that yields to and presents the grievances and paranoia of a terrorist group that bans bras and samosas as evidence of corruption. So in other words, if Al-Shabab is onto you, its safe to assume you’re in the pockets of government officials, even if you’re just a local shoe-shiner, shining the shoes of a man who knows someone who knew someone who worked for the government. To call this deductive reasoning problematic is, well, a lesson in futility, as we’ve since passed the point of how problematic this expose is.

It’s fair to say I’m skeptical about Osman’s motives like many of his critics. His article points to a media landscape rife with corruption, and Somali Journalists as a demographic lacking an iota of professional integrity, incapable of non-partisan reporting, and inept at their position. I think this narrative is very convenient for the western media, as it can dismiss, and has dismissed local journalists as incompetent, and that for one to really access information from the region, one can only trust in western voices. After all, they’re not susceptible to the influence of tribal allegiances, and cultural biases, issues that apparently only plague us miscreant Africans. There’s a scarcity in discussions about the integrity of the countless western reporters operating in the region, and their questionable and casual approach to ethics (I’ll give you a clue, most of these guys probably wrote a book about us at some point), but plenty of ‘Oh’s’ and ‘Ah’s’ about the ramifications of entrusting the Somali to pen an article without lining his pockets with Shillings. I think Osman’s article was a nice topping to complement the already hostile media landscape on Somali coverage that reduces us to Pirates, terrorists, warlords, and now apparently even our journalists can’t keep their hands out of the proverbial cookie jar.

Lastly, I ask Jamal Osman, if he were serious about getting to the root of the political violence against Journalists, why not provide us with commentary from institutions and journalists who actively work against this practice? Is everyone corrupt? judging by your article, it would certainly seem that way. Why instead offer generalized caricatures of Somali journalists, supported by anecdotal evidence? Did you not foresee the implications of dismissing the targeted, meticulous and systematic attacks against your colleagues as simply corruption on their part? Well to be fair, Osman acknowledges the reality of a ‘dangerous Somalia’ as a possible variable, should his thesis fail to withstand further investigation. With one article comprised of anecdotes and generalizations, Osman has succeeded in giving legitimacy to those who work vigorously to silence Journalists in Somalia.  I’m also fascinated by Jamal Osman’s failure to contact the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) about his thesis. Is it fair to assume that a journalist ought to perhaps bring the issue of political violence against corrupt journalist to the Union responsible for representing journalists in the region? If not, at least for a sound bite?

I can already hear the critics decrying, ‘well why would he do that when NUSOJ could also be corrupt, and might dismiss his claims’. Perhaps, but it might be wise to note that NUSOJ is a trusted Union that has campaigned on behalf of Journalists since 2002. It was recently awarded the ‘Democracy Courage Award’ by the Washington D.C based Solidarity Center, an organization that works in labor union advocacy (for those of you that require our organizations be stamped with a seal of approval from western organizations). According to NUSOJ, its aim is “to ensure media freedom, ethical standards in media by
1. Protect and Promote Freedom of the Press, Speech and Information. 
2. Improve working conditions and safety & security of journalists. 
3. Defend and promote principles and practice of the journalistic profession.” I believe its fair to assume that before one dismisses the media climate in Somalia as corrupt, it might be wise to invite the organization entrusted to spread and promote ethics in journalism, and lobbying for a more transparent media climate, to the a seat at the dialogue table.

Final note, my aim in this discussion is to not derail nor dismiss the charges of corruption in Somali media as an irrelevant issue, and believe this is a conversation that needs a platform immediately. Corruption is real, and rife in Somalia, but it is real and rife everywhere, and we Africans do not have a monopoly on questionable media ethics. But if one is sincere about challenging media corruption, then one has a responsibility to speak to the community it aims to address, and not speak about them. Jamal Osman is a respected journalist, but also a privileged agent with an opportunity to communicate his grievances through major western media conglomerates, in a language not spoken by a large majority of the group he seeks to indict, while conveniently speaking to an audience that has already dismissed Somalia as beyond moral and political repair.

There are countless Somali journalists in recent days that’ve challenged his claims through Somali newspapers and online sources, but unfortunately, many do not have the cultural and economic capital to address their grievance in english to an english speaking audience, and on the Guardian. And that’s precisely why I felt compiled to respond to this, and left angered by those marginalized voices that are now left fighting for their lives reporting our lives with integrity and bravery.  As a journalist living in London, Osman has access to a network of journalist, works for a reputable network, and could easily locate finances that could support an environment where this discussion could take place amongst Somalis, but opted for a more convenient route. Parting thoughts, many of my brilliant critics often ask me, ‘Is your aim to speak to us, or about us’, when I engage in uncomfortable and controversial sociopolitical issues, a question that calls for accountability, and recognition of one’s privileged position as an insider reporting back to the west about the misbehaved savage. I pose a similar question to you Jamal Osman, and hope this episode can serve as a teachable moment about the responsibility we bare as privileged Somalis. Finally, in solidarity with Journalists in Somalia, and in conflict regions everywhere who bring us our stories and give our narratives, as uncomfortable as they may be at times, a voice.