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Somali Government Orders Journalists to Rename Militant Group

Somalia's government has ordered national media to only refer to al Shabaab as "the Group that Massacres the Somali People."
AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

Somalia's government has ordered journalists to stop using the moniker "al Shabaab" to refer to the homegrown jihadist group, placing the country's media  in a precarious situation.

Instead, the government has renamed the Islamist militants "UGUS," an acronym for a new name in Somali that translates as: "The Group that Massacres the Somali People," (Somali: "Ururka Gumaadka Ummadda Soomaaliyeed").

Al Shabaab translates from Arabic as "the youth." Speaking to journalists in Somalia, the head of Somalia's Intelligence and Security Services General Abdirahman Mohamud Tuuryare, said: "We should not allow this good name to be dirtied. This enemy we are fighting is called UGUS."


The government-controlled Radio Mogadishu and SNTV were already using the new name when the government order was announced, according to the BBC.

Al Shabaab is aligned with al Qaeda. Active since 2006, the group masterminded last month's siege at Garissa University, Kenya, which left 147 dead, as well as the 2013 Westgate mall attack in Nairobi.

Related: Graphic photos show deadly al Shabaab attack on United Nations vehicle in Puntland. Read more here.

The government order is not the first of it's kind, and authorities regularly raid Somali news outlets and detain journalists.

Last September the Somali government issued a ban on coverage of all al Shabaab activities, and several journalists were detained in the days following the announcement. These included Osman Abdullhai Guure, the director of Radio Kulmiye, and Abdirahim Isse Addow, the head of the state radio broadcaster, who were accused of broadcasting a statement made by the militant Islamic group's leader.

The government's latest raid was on the Mogadishu-based Radio Shabelle on April 3 after it broadcast a message from al Shabaab spokesperson Sheikh Ali Dheere claiming responsibility for the Garissa University attack in Kenya.  Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said heavily armed security forces arrested 25 people, including 23 journalists and media workers, and confiscated their equipment.

The government's directive to journalists came on Sunday, which was also World Press Freedom Day, and it's not clear if there is a formal, legal penalty for violation of the order.  RSF ranks Somalia toward the bottom of its 2015 press freedom index — coming in at 172 out of 180 countries.


Clea Kahn-Sriber, head of RSF's Africa desk, told VICE News that she believes the Somali government's order represents a clear impediment to freedom of speech in the country. Furthermore, she criticized the government's imprisonment of journalists who violated previous official directives, adding that along with creating an obstacle to the right to freedom of speech, this move "also has very real and grave consequences on the ability of journalists to do their work freely."

"Journalists in certain areas are of course caught in between this government directive and the very real presence of al Shabaab on the ground who want them to report their actions," she said.  "Whatever [journalists] do they are at risk."

Related: Death toll rises to 147 after al Shabaab gunmen attack Kenyan university. Read more here.

On Sunday, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) tweeted saying that it wanted to "recognize" and "commend" the contribution of the media toward ensuring peace in Somalia. AMISOM said it was appealing for "sustained dissemination of the message that enhances peace and stability" and promised to "continue to support the press in Somalia to facilitate an environment in which they can operate freely."

The new announcement raises questions around the role propaganda plays in internal conflicts and the increasing zealousness that Islamic militant groups have shown in attempting to stage-manage their own image.

Somalia is not the only government attempting to rebrand al Shabaab. Last week Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni wrote an editorial in which he labeled the group "the idiots in Mogadishu."

Related: Kenyans search for loved ones and answers on government's poor security after university attack. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd