On April 11, 2016, Hassan Hanafi, a member of al-Shabab (“The Youth”), a U.S.-designated terror group that operates in Somalia and surrounding areas, was executed by Somalian authorities. U.S. news outlets, such as CNN, noted that Hanafi was a former journalist who later helped kill members of the press as an al-Shabab operative.
However, the media missed a chance to tell a larger story: That of press intimidation by terrorist organizations attempting to extend the reach of Islamic supremacism in Africa.
Prior to joining al-Shabab, Hanafi worked for Holy Quran Radio in Mogadishu, Somalia from 2003 to 2005. Al-Shabab took over Holy Quran Radio in 2010, using it to broadcast the group’s propaganda.
Hanafi served as both a battlefield leader for the movement and as its propaganda chief — the latter post described oddly by Associated Press as head of al-Shabab’s “media unit” (“Al-Shabab Media Officer Executed for Killings of Five Somali Journalists,” April 11, 2016).
Hanafi went from being an ostensible member of the press to someone who sought to silence news coverage via threats or murder if he could not distort reporting to favor al-Shabab. He helped the terror group identify at least five journalists who were later murdered and, according to his own testimony, killed a journalist himself.
In its coverage of Hanafi’s execution, AP briefly mentioned that he “often urged journalists to report according to al-Shabab’s media rules, which included avoiding stories related to the group’s military setbacks.” Hanafi’s actions, the news service acknowledged, forced “many media outlets to practice self-censorship for security reasons.”
While some news outlets reported Hanafi’s crimes and his death, few chose to dig deeper into the potential chilling effects al-Shabab’s media enforcer may have had.
Somalia and neighboring countries including Kenya have been subject to attacks by the group and its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, for more than a decade. Al-Shabab, which has been linked to other U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram, has targeted reporters frequently and often successfully.
More than 25 journalists have been murdered in Somalia since 2007, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit organization that “promotes press freedom worldwide.” While this number is not as high as those killed in Iraq and Syria and not all of the 25 can be attributed to al-Shabab, many can. In December 2015, journalist Hindia Haji Mohamed, herself the widow of a murdered journalist, died when al-Shabab blew up her car.
Those who do report from places as dangerous or oppressive as Somalia, Iran or China often may not make clear for readers, viewers or listeners the constraints they operate under that may hamper comprehensive reporting.
The murders of journalists like James Foley and Steve Sotloff by ISIS received extensive coverage. That was one of ISIS’ objectives. Yet, when terrorists’ goal is to urge “journalists to report according to their media rules” and to “practice self-censorship” — thereby assisting propaganda efforts — this attempted or achieved distortion often goes unmentioned.
For that reason alone, the death of a journalist-turned-persecutor of the press ought to have received more attention.
Occasionally a reference to constraints imposed by terrorists or despotic regimes does appear. In a June 25, 2003 Op-Ed for The Jerusalem Post (“Access and Ethics at The New York Times”), Andrea Levin, executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), noted comments made by Douglas Jehl, then a New York Times correspondent and now Washington Post foreign editor, during a June 2003 Washington symposium. Mr. Jehl acknowledged that threats made him “more cautious as a reporter.” On Iran’s nuclear program and Syrian support for the terrorist group Hezbollah, Mr. Jehl admitted he “wrote about these issues, but couldn’t dig as deeply as he’d like, and did recognize that the more of these [critical] stories one writes, the more difficult it would be to get back in.”
Intimidation and exploitation of the press is nothing new. The Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat employed the tactic in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s. As former Israeli journalist turned political adviser Ze’ev Chafets noted in his 1985 book “Double Vision: How the Press Distorts America’s View of the Middle East,” the PLO routinely intimidated journalists, creating “enemies lists” of those who didn’t cooperate. This, and the PLO’s ability to deny access to, or if necessary, murder those who were critical, led New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman to observe in his 1989 book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” that “the Western press coddled the PLO.” Indeed, as Mr. Chafets wrote, Arafat fondly referred to the press corps headquartered in Beirut’s Commodore Hotel as his “Commodore Battalion.”
Like Arafat, Hassan Hanafi was trying to raise his own media battalion. Some who refused to enlist were murdered.
• Sean Durns is media assistant for the Washington D.C. office of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.