Somalia’s first all-women media team shakes up Somali journalism
March 19, 2023
“ The Somali media is a hostile environment for female journalists. They are frowned upon by a society that believes a woman’s role is to stay at home, cook and have children.”
That’s how Laylo Osman, chair of the Somali Women Journalists Rights Association, described the situation in a recent assessment of the Somali media scene done for UNDP Somalia.
Since then, the same stories have been told to us by many others. Women journalists are harassed on the street as soon as they take out a camera or try to conduct an interview. Official figures sometimes refuse to talk to them — demanding that a male journalist asks the questions instead. Even inside their own offices, women face harassment from colleagues and are routinely denied training opportunities and promotions. If a woman does reach a position of authority, she is often ignored while more junior figures get to call the shots.
As a result, women’s careers are stymied and Somali media fall short on covering issues of concern to half the population — like domestic violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation and much more.
In response, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has set up an all-women, editorially independent media unit. Called Bilan, which means bright and pure in Somali, the unit opened its doors in April and is staffed and run entirely by women producing high-quality, high-impact, original journalism across all platforms, including TV and radio.
The team reports a mix of hard news and in-depth features. With its unique perspective and access to women’s lives and opinions, Bilan is breaking new ground not just for women journalists but also for Somali journalism, shining a light on stories that have long been ignored.
Ultimately, Bilan aims to provide a model of well-researched and informative reporting that media professionals across the country will come to respect and will want to emulate, irrespective of their gender.
A SAFE SPACE AND EDITORIAL AUTHORITY
Somalia’s first-ever women-staffed and -led media unit is made up of six women (five journalists and an editor) and is being hosted by Dalsan Media Group — one of Somalia’s leading media houses — in specially equipped offices that occupy the entire floor of a building in Mogadishu.
Dalsan provides the office space and a guaranteed platform for distribution of the women’s reports on its TV, radio and web platforms. But the unit remains fully independent, with complete editorial control. The women journalists decide what they will cover, when they will cover it and how. For the first time in Somalia, women are in charge of the story.
TRAINING AND MENTORING FROM THE BEST IN THE BUSINESS
UNDP covers Bilan’s costs and manages a comprehensive programme of training and mentoring designed in consultation with local women journalists and based on their experience of real-life challenges.
This rolling programme of support brings onboard some of the best local and international talent, including household names like the BBC’s Lyse Doucet and Razia Iqbal, Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum and Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Adow, as well as high-profile government spokespeople and public figures.
The training covers all aspects of digital journalism. On the technical side, it includes skills such as video production, photography and sound editing. More broadly, it covers investigative reporting and interview techniques, media ethics and safety in the field.
Unlike previous training programmes for Somali journalists, which have provided short-term courses or one-off workshops for large numbers of people, this programme offers sustained, intense support to a small number of women.
This is because we know journalism is a tough job and a craft that needs years to hone. And because our aim is ambitious: we want to create a unit that can hold its own against any other media team in Somalia — and further afield.
Bilan also runs an internship programme for women journalism students in their final-year at Mogadishu University and Somalia National University.
Those with the best scores who pass a competitive interview will get to spend six months working with Bilan and benefitting from both practical experience and the ongoing training programme.
UNDP is helping Somali women and Somali stories find a global audience by working with international outlets that can feature Bilan’s work. Our first collaboration will be with a UK paper, which will run a series of stories looking at how climate change is affecting the most vulnerable in Somalia.
We are also planning to set up networks for Somali women journalists to collaborate with women reporters in similarly difficult environments, such as Afghanistan. These South- South exchanges will provide a way for women to support each other, share experiences and skills and learn how other people have overcome similar challenges.
REDUCING HARASSMENT ONLINE
Somalia’s online environment can be toxic — especially for women, who can expect abuse whenever they do something that is traditionally viewed as a male preserve. When women journalists publish reports online, abuse often comes from male colleagues.
UNDP will work with male journalists to see how to change attitudes and is reaching out to the major social media platforms to explore ways to stamp out abuse.