RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now for a story about what it means to be a journalist in Somalia. These days a country that for decades has been known as a failed state has more media outlets than ever before. And many of these new reporters are young, some just 15 years old. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports from Mogadishu, these young journalists are conscripted to fight the political feuds of Somalia's rich and powerful. It's a war over the airwaves that sometimes involves real bullets.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Tucked under the satellite dishes on the roof of Radio Shabelle in Mogadishu are mattresses made of foam, like towels spread out on a concrete beach. They are there for reporters like Hamdi Ali Ahmed who are afraid to go home.
HAMDI ALI AHMED: We're eating the food here. We sleeping here. We're working here. We are not going out.
WARNER: Shabelle is the largest outlet in Somalia and the deadliest. Out of the 12 Somali journalists killed last year, four were her colleagues.
AHMED: But I know it's very difficult is my work 'cause all my of friends, they die. Still now I like journalist. Also I'm working journalist. My hobby is a journalist.
WARNER: Her hobby is a journalist, she says, but hobby, it turns out, is a word in the Somali tongue. It's come to mean not just hobby but calling.
AHMED: 'Cause my hobby is a journalist. I think it's a nice future.
WARNER: Media is thriving in the new Somalia and journalism is one of those few careers here you can pursue without education or money or family connections. Young Somalis in particular who grew up in the decades of war when the voice of the radio reporter could literally be a lifeline, speak of journalism like being a rock star. The chance for fame and glory comes with the risk of dying young.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So when I was in school, I had a dream to have this power to report back to my community and they hear me, whatever I tell.
WARNER: This journalist asked that I not use his name or his voice. What you're hearing is the voice of his translator. As a kid, he used to skip school to join his grandfather under a tree listening to BBC Somali service. When he finally got his hands on a microphone at age 18, his reports nearly got him beheaded by Islamists militants. So he fled to the capital, Mogadishu, where radio Shabelle gave him a mattress to sleep on and three meals a day.
But the hospitality came with a price.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We were in a cage.
WARNER: He and other journalists, he says, were forced to report slander against the owner's political enemies. The president of Somalia was a thief, went one story. The mayor of Mogadishu was mentally insane.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We couldn't go out from Shabelle compound. We were already like criminals from each side because we had got a lot of enemies.
WARNER: Enemies among the Islamists and among the political officials. And one by one his fellow journalists were shot down in the street with no one ever punished for the crime. And after he voiced a barbed story naming top officials of embezzlement, he was also shot - in the chest, but survived and escaped to Nairobi. There he met dozens of exiled Somali journalists, including Mohammed Garane, a leader in the national union for Somali journalists and the voice you've heard translating this interview.
Garane breaks away from translating to add that Shabelle is not unique. It's just one of many private media outlets in Somalia known as the mercenaries of tycoons.
MOHAMMED GARANE: We call the media as the mercenaries of owners or tycoons, who sit(ph) overseas, exploit the media, and that is the case that causes the killings.
WARNER: Because there's not yet much of a justice system in Somalia where the targets of slander can seek recourse.
GARANE: There is no court that the person can go and report his anger, so he takes a pistol and then kills the journalist himself.
WARNER: The Committee To Protect Journalists' East Africa representative, Tom Rhodes, asks himself what these journalists are dying for.
TOM RHODES: And I'd like to say that, well, it's because they are more adventurous, but it's not the case. It's basically because of the type of reporting that they've been doing, right? I mean...
WARNER: Type of reporting, which is not exactly reporting.
RHODES: Exactly, yeah. It's kind of a slander machine towards individuals.
WARNER: So why do the journalists go along with it?
RHODES: You know, some of these guys are very young. The most professional journalists have all fled the country. That creates a brain drain, doesn't it? Which leaves a much younger, less experienced press corps trying to run the show.
WARNER: The owner of Shabelle is a Somali businessman based in London. I gave him several opportunities to respond to this story. When I called him, he declined to talk to me in English, then missed our scheduled appointment when I called back with a translator. Since then he's stopped answering calls or text messages.
When I asked Shabelle's 38-year-old news director, Abdi Uud, why he hires reporters not even old enough to join the army, you'll hear him fall back on that word again - hobby.
ABDI UUD: (Through translator) The young people are passionate about this hobby, and if a person is passionate, he doesn't care if he'll be killed or not.
WARNER: Slander is unfortunately commonplace in Somali media. Some journalists take bribes to tell falsehoods. But an outlet like Shabelle, though it pays its reporters less than $2 a day, offers something no less important than money. Because reporters sleep here, eat here and spend so much time together, the mood feels like a college dorm/war bunker.
At one point on my tour of the station, I come upon some reporters staging a sing-off. One of them is Hamdi Ali Ahmed, the young woman we met earlier.
AHMED: (Singing in foreign language)
WARNER: The singing is something that the reporters at first just did to blow off steam, but now it's spawned a popular show in the style of "American Idol." News director Abdi Uud takes this moment to tell me that there are two worlds, the world inside Shabelle with music and comeraderie, and the world outside, with problems and killings. Which one would you choose?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whatever they do outside, we don't care. This is good.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
WARNER: When I asked the journalist who used to sit under the tree with his grandfather listening to the BBC why he suffered so long working for Shabelle despite the lies, he said he had kids to feed and needed the job. But he also felt like if he just stuck it out long enough he'd get the experience to become the journalist he always dreamed he'd be.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Somalia.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WARNER: The good news is that the country is safer and exiled journalists are slowly returning home, becoming news directors of newly reputable stations, and radio Shabelle dropped in popularity last year, according to an unpublished survey done by researchers for the International Peacekeeping Force in Somalia, because Somalis are weary of media bought out by third parties.
So the hope is that Somalis will vote for real journalism with the radio dial, the assassinations of journalist will finally decrease, and Somali journalists will get the chance to grow up. Gregory Warner, NPR News.