The Press Release Wars

With the world constantly searching for news regarding the situation in Somalia and the international Media still ravenously rummaging for stories regarding the current food crisis, it seems that both the African Union forces and the Islamists are conscientiously attempting to sway public opinion onto their sides respectively. I have been receiving written statements from AMISOM headquarters for quite some time but Al-Shabaab, who are somewhat elusive when it comes to international media, have begun dishing out some well-written press releases.

As the battles in Mogadishu continue to escalate, as predicted, during this Holy month of Ramadan, both Al-Shabaab and AMISOM forces have their own narrative of the events that have transpired over the last four days of fighting. Local Media here in Mogadishu has reported that several Ugandan soldiers and up to 3 unidentified ‘white’ foreigners were killed during yesterday’s suicide attack on an AU base in Wardhiigley by the Islamists. Independent observers and analysts in Mogadishu have also corroborated the findings of the media. But what did the warring parties have to say?

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Mogadishu’s Media War

When Mogadishu is often described as one of the world’s most dangerous places, it is not merely an understatement. No amount of coverage or depiction would do justice to the horrors that persistently lay siege to this city’s wear population. And the assault, this time, is not only on the ground.

More than one week into the intense battles that had crippled Mogadishu’s residents and the rivals’ radio stations could no longer contain their fury. Mogadishu’s battle is being fought on the airwaves. The target: The Minds of Mogadishans. With information and misinformation, scathing remarks, alarming threats and the rapid rattle of a machine-gun fire for jingles, the airwaves are waging a deadly psychological warfare in order to sculpt the minds of the residents, thereby transforming the battle’s prospects.

What I find rather staggering, however, is the how far each party is willing to go to in order update the local population about the Mogadishu battles according to their version of events. The government’s vociferous Radio Muqdisho (90 MHz) had dispatched some of its reporters to the front lines. Embedded with the AMISOM troops, the Radio Muqdisho reporters transmit their reports via a telephone. A few days into the battle and the station claimed to have built a new make-shift station ‘inside’ the Ministry of Defense compound where some AMISOM soldiers from the Burundian contingent were said to have been besieged by the Islamists.
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Ethiopian Involvement in Somalia’s Media War

Mogadishu is a constantly changing landscape. In the course of the battle for this ancient port city, battle lines are often drawn and erased, defence posts erected and demolished, allegiances formed and severed, and more soldiers trained to damage and destroy. But while the interminable gun battles continue to temporarily transform the territorial gains of the opposing forces on the ground, it is the battle on the airwaves that will eventually define the final outcome of the war.

The battle is now in the airwaves and words are sometimes deadlier than the bullets. Soldiers’ confessions, government rebuttals, fervent Islamist lectures, Jihadi Nasheeds, information leaks and an overdose of carefully packaged propaganda, however infelicitous it may seem at times, appears to be the order of the day. Where one particular frequency bolsters the government’s voice and demonizes the actions of the Islamists, the other plays Jihadi tunes and sermons by senior Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, glorifying Jihad and Martyrdom for the creation of an Islamic Caliphate. And as a result of the ongoing political pandemonium across the country, it has become rather difficult to find an impartial voice – detached from the political process.

Al-Shabab, the Islamists controlling majority of the country, have recently stepped up their media campaign. Al-Kataib Foundation for Media Production, the rather sophisticated Media wing of the Islamists, has recently launched a terrestrial TV channel in Mogadishu to complement their steady stream of video productions. The channel’s pilot began with the confessions of a former CIA spy recently executed by the Islamists and reaches as far as Ceelasha Biyaha and Afgooye.

The Somali government, on the other hand, having been ineffective on the ground, has recently stepped up its propaganda campaign too. News stories, on-air drama series and, well, rather implausible ‘facts’ – distinctively characterized by derision – are often reiterated on the airwaves in order to influence the opinions of the masses. But these radio broadcasts do not often appeal to all audiences in the same manner, so the race is on for the opposing sides to sway public opinion to their side. Ethiopia has now also joined the race too.

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