Africa Update: Slain Somalian Reporters

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For the latest news from the continent, NPR East Africa Correspondent Gwen Thompkins talks about the murder of two prominent journalists in Somalia, a new report by Human Rights Watch on alleged war crimes in Mogadishu and the reported call to close the Eritrean consulate in Oakland.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's time now for our Africa update. Two prominent journalists in Somalia are murdered. Also, why some reporters in Kenya have threatened to demonstrate. And a new report by Human Rights Watch on alleged war crimes in Mogadishu.

For more, I'm joined by Gwen Thompkins, NPR's correspondent in East Africa. Hi, Gwen.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hi, Farai. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm great. We know that you're in Kenya but let's start with something taking place in our backyard. The U.S. has reportedly called for the closing of the Eritrean Consulate in Oakland, California. Why is that?

THOMPKINS: Well, you're right, Farai. The Eritrean Consulate in Oakland has 90 days to close. Washington called for the embassy to close in response to violations apparently made against the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea recently.

The Eritrean government has reportedly demanded to inspect the embassy's diplomatic pouches. Now, these are the bags that carry mail and other communications to and from the U.S. Embassy. And under international law, these pouches are not to be opened for foreign inspection.

The Eritrean government is also reportedly imposed visa restrictions on U.S. officials in Eritrea. And diplomatic slights like these suggest that the relationship between the two countries has really soured.

Part of the reason could be because of regional rivalries here in East Africa. Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia are bitter rivals. And the U.S. and Ethiopia have become very public allies, working in tandem on breaking the Islamist movement in Somalia and in rooting out terrorist strikes in the area. Eritrea has accused the U.S. of helping stall efforts to resolve its border dispute with Ethiopia.

CHIDEYA: So talk about this border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea more.

THOMPKINS: There was a time when Ethiopia had a port. Unfortunately for them that port is now in the country of Eritrea, which broke away from Ethiopia not long ago. The two countries have never resolved the dispute over where exactly Eritrea ends and Ethiopia begins. And this is going on for quite some time. There's actually been bloody trench war that occurred between 1998 and 2000 between the two countries in which thousands and thousands of soldiers on both sides died.

CHIDEYA: So what is the effect of the consulate closing, especially for the Eritreans in the U.S. or on Americans?

THOMPKINS: Well, the consulate closing will make it that much more difficult for thousands of Eritrean nationals living in California to be in contact with their government. Now these folks still have to pay taxes to Eritrea and it would be reasonable to expect that Eritrea's government will lose some of that tax money. The only Americans affected by the closure would be any who work at the consulate or who might be planning a trip to Eritrea and need visas.

CHIDEYA: So let's turn to Somalia. This week, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, issued a report on alleged war crimes in Mogadishu. What can you tell us about that?

THOMPKINS: Well, the report says that all warring parties in Mogadishu have violated international humanitarian laws with regards to civilians. The report also says that the bodies of some soldiers in Mogadishu have been desecrated in the fighting.

Ever since December of 2006, when the Islamist movement that controlled Mogadishu fell from power, there's been an insurgency at work there that has challenged the authority of Somalia's transitional government.

The Human Rights Watch report concentrates on the fighting that took place in Mogadishu in March and April of this year. And it found that Islamist fighters were embedding themselves in densely populated civilian neighborhoods, hiding among ordinary Somalis and putting them at risk.

The report also found that Somali and Ethiopian forces were bombing these civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately, and that all sides were hindering efforts to care for the wounded.

There's also been a problem, Farai, of the landmines in Mogadishu. These explosives have been killing any number of children and other civilians there this year. And if the report's allegations are true, then Human Rights Watch is right. There have been war crimes committed against civilians in Mogadishu. Now, hundreds of Somalis reportedly died in Mogadishu in April and May and several thousands have fled the city, never to return.

CHIDEYA: What's been the reaction so far to the report?

THOMPKINS: Well, there's been no word, as of yet, from the insurgents, not that it was expected. But the transitional government in Somalia has reacted very strongly. They've denied any in all of the report's findings.

Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Ghedi also said that the report failed to mention any of the gains the government had made in moving Somalia towards stability. He even accused Human Rights Watch of working on behalf of Islamist fighters.

But on one point, Ghedi has to agree with the report. It cites the international community for turning a blind eye to the fighting in Somalia and thus making the situation worse.

Ghedi has been pleading with the international community to send more peacekeepers to Somalia. Right now, there's supposed to be an African Union force there that's supposed to be 8,000 strong. But there are only 1,600 African troops there and they have been under siege for so long that they have made very little progress toward keeping peace in Mogadishu.

CHIDEYA: Last week, I went to the National Association of Black Journalists Annual Convention in Las Vegas, and there was an award given to a group of Somali journalists who had been pioneering and groundbreaking in asking for free journalism and free speech. But over the weekend, we heard about the murders of some prominent journalists. Can you tell us about that?

THOMPKINS: Yes. It's been a real setback for Somalia and actually for the region as well because getting news and information out of Somalia can be tough.

The founder of Horn Afrik radio, a well-known independent and privately owned radio station based in Mogadishu, was killed in a car explosion on Saturday. And what so ironic - sadly ironic about the situation is that he had just come from the funeral of a popular talk show host at the station who had been shot to death outside his home Saturday morning.

And though the transitional government has blamed Islamist fighters for the killings, it's a bit unclear who is responsible. Two suspects have been taken into custody. That's all anyone is saying at this point. And it's also important to note that Horn Afrik radio had been fairly evenhanded in its coverage of all sides in the fighting in Mogadishu. It had angered the government as well as Islamist fighters.

CHIDEYA: So reporters where you are in Nairobi have threatened to demonstrate tomorrow. Why?

THOMPKINS: Well, the Kenyan parliament has passed a media bill that would, under certain conditions, require journalists to reveal unnamed sources in court.

Now, Farai, what's sort of nutty about this bill making it this far is that there appears to have been no quorum at the time of the vote. It was passed by only 29 out of 222 lawmakers. And this clause, which was added quite late in the process, has stirred up all sectors of civil society here. Whistleblowers who have brought corruption scandals into the open over the past several years, they could not have done so, it's fair to say, without cover of anonymity in many instances.

If President Mwai Kibaki signs this bill as it is written, then this would be a setback for media in Kenya. And you have to remember, Farai, that Kenya is seen by many in this region as sort of the last great hope for democracy in East Africa. But the government here might find a way to wiggle out of the mess. They say that it is as yet unclear whether the clause in the bill that will require journalists to name their sources, whether that clause is legal. So they're going to take it under review.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we hope to hear more from you on that subject. Thanks, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: Thanks so much, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Gwen Thompkins is NPR's correspondent in East Africa, speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya.

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