It’s dangerous being a female journalist in Somalia. But, one year on, we are still shining our light

April 17, 2023

Bilan is Somalia’s first all-women media team. Staffed and run entirely by women with full editorial independence, the unit covers hard news and in-depth features. Bilan is funded and supported by UNDP and hosted by Dalsan Media Group at offices in Mogadishu.

Photo: UNDP Somalia

Since Bilan, the country’s only all-women media house, was born last April, we’ve covered everything from HIV to opioids. Now we want to go global.

Being a journalist in Somalia is a dangerous business, especially if you are a woman. More so if you want to cover taboo topics. But that is not going to stop me or any of my colleagues at Bilan, the country’s only all-female media house, which celebrates its first birthday on Tuesday. After all, Bilan is a Somali word that means “shining a light”.

One of the most difficult subjects I have tackled is female drug addiction in Somalia. I decided to do so after a 22-year-old social media influencer was found dead from a suspected opioid overdose on the streets of Mogadishu. Nobody wanted to talk about the increasing numbers of young women injecting drugs and popping pills because it was seen as shameful for the whole society.

It took months to persuade anyone to speak. The addicts were terrified their parents would find out, but I persuaded them to wear face masks to hide their identities. They asked me for money to feed their habits.

The pharmacists who sell opioids threatened me, trying to stop me writing the story because they wanted to continue making money from the addicts, and feared being exposed to the police.

When the report came out, I was attacked by fellow Somalis who accused me of damaging the reputation of our country by telling the world about this problem.

There were moments when I felt like giving up, but that is not my character. Then came some good news. An advocacy group, Save Somali Women and Children, called me and offered to help. They are now working on a strategy to tackle female drug abuse.

Fathi Mohamed Ahmed on the set of a television programme

Fathi Mohamed Ahmed is chief editor of Bilan, Somalia's only all-women media house.

Photo: UNDP Somalia

Bilan has faced similar abuse for reporting on people living with HIV and Aids, another story on a woman who defied local hostility to welcome HIV-positive people into her house, and on teenage orphan girls forced into early marriage and later abandoned to bring up their children alone.

But reporting these stories has also shown how caring and compassionate people can be. Our phones were buzzing with calls from people who wanted to donate money, and the ministry of health decided to intervene to support some of the HIV-positive people we wrote about, especially a 75-year-old man forced to live on the streets.

We also face abuse simply for going to work. People shout at us in public, telling us to go back home where we belong. They became even more abusive when I was pregnant with my third child. Now I bring him to work with me, where he is cared for by the whole team in our office, which is also a safe space for women.

"Bilan is not just about telling the sad untold stories. During our first year, we have reported on as many positive topics as negative ones."

Many Somalis do not consider journalism an acceptable job for a woman, who they believe should stay at home to cook, clean and raise children. I decided to become a journalist when I was very young, having spent hours listening to the radio with my grandmother. I hid my ambitions from my parents, telling them I was studying computing in the afternoons after school, when in fact I was studying journalism at a college in Mogadishu.

When my father discovered the truth, he told me to stop immediately. Working in media would destroy my future and bring shame on the whole family, he said. I told him I could not stop, that journalism was my calling. Eventually he relented, and now my whole family is proud of me and my work.

Named for a Somali word meaning “shining a light", Bilan is committed to making sure women’s stories and voices are heard.

Photo: UNDP Somalia

We have overcome huge hurdles to become journalists. The youngest in the team, Shukri Mohamed Abdi, comes from a rural community where the very concept of being a journalist does not exist. Members of her clan have insulted and threatened her because of her work.

There have been threats from government officials and Islamist groups. Family members of a Bilan journalist were badly wounded in a militant attack aimed at her. We all risk our lives daily as we live in a country where the smallest of problems is solved with a gun. With more than 50 media workers killed since 2010, Somalia is the most perilous place to be a journalist in Africa. For the eighth year running, Somalia has come top of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ global impunity index.

Bilan is not just about telling the sad untold stories. During our first year, we have reported on as many positive topics as negative ones, including on urban women who have set up farms outside Mogadishu, and a 10-year-old girl who teaches crafts to adults. Along with the criticism, we receive praise, too, from people who say our approach to stories is different from that of male journalists.

Unlike other female media workers in Somalia, we do all our journalism from start to finish. We decide what stories to tell and how to tell them. We film, edit, write and present our stories – we are behind and in front of the camera.

We have learned many of these skills in the past year. People say the way we film is different from our male colleagues, because we focus on things they rarely notice, like the way displaced people cook their food and wash their clothes.

We have big plans for our second year. We are going to take Bilan into the regions, establishing a network of reporters across the country. We would love to see other Bilans in all our federal member states and beyond.

Bilan must go global. If you can set up an all-woman media house in Somalia, you can do it almost anywhere else in the world.

This article was originally published in The Guardian.