Relaunch of faculty heralds new era in journalism

The Somali National University has relaunched its faculty of journalism and communication – 26 years after its closure in 1991. The faculty will meet the need for formally trained media workers in the country’s growing number of media outlets, and provide expert training for journalists working in a politically sensitive context and facing ongoing conflict with Islamist insurgents al-Shabaab and other armed gangs.

With Somali journalists having being denied formal instruction since the country’s central government collapsed in 1991, the country has relied mostly on untrained personnel or journalists trained through apprenticeships, non-governmental organisations, and ministry of information short-term training programmes. Some media groups opt to spend revenue on hiring foreign-trained journalists.

Kenyan-based independent journalist and filmmaker Yassin Juma, who has written extensively about Somalia, said: “In a country that has in the past seen media houses operating unprofessionally due to lack of training, and of course [because of] clannism and political or financial interests, the opening of the faculty is long overdue.

"This is a country that is just emerging from almost three decades of civil war and an ongoing reconciliation process. Therefore, journalists with necessary skills will be handy in helping the country get over the grim past to a bright future.”

Juma said a pool of well-trained (mostly foreign-trained) journalists have opted for freelance journalism covering events and news for international news outlets “for better returns” leaving the local media houses with a small pool of poorly trained staff.

“Gathering news, presenting the news to the targeted audience in a balanced way, as per the ethics of the profession, is lacking in many journalists I have worked with. The faculty has a pivotal role to play in making the journalist understand his or her role in society and especially in a country that is split on clan and political affiliations.”

Journalists in the firing line

Professional training is particularly important in conflict areas and in Somalia which has a history of journalists being targeted by violence.

Juma said a number of journalists had died while covering conflict. “Maybe they didn’t know the safety measures for covering hostile situations,” he suggested.

The new head of the faculty is Abdulkadir Mohamed Dhi'isow. The first intake is 60 students. The programme will offer both theoretical and practical training at diploma, bachelor and masters degree levels at first, with the aim of offering PhDs in the future. “We will kick off with language skills and writing styles,” he said.

Mahad Wasuge, a researcher and writer at the Somali-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, described the re-launch as “long overdue”.

“The faculty is important for producing professional journalists equipped with the relevant academic knowledge of the industry,” he told University World News. Even though Somalia has developed a thriving private tertiary education sector, these institutions have not paid “much attention to journalism training and that is why the faculty of journalism and communication of the Somali National University is expected to fill that void,” Wasuge said.

Ismail Mukhtar Omar, chief editor of the Somali National News Agency, said the relaunch of the faculty will help professionalise the sector and help meet changing public demands and the country's needs.

“The industry is literally littered with unqualified personnel, but this can be blamed on a lack of journalism schools. The relaunch of this faculty by the only government public university is significant in developing the future of the industry. It is timely and we welcome it,” he said.

A tailored curriculum

Mukhtar called on the university to tailor its curriculum to the Somali situation and put emphasis on skills and knowledge around conflict reporting as a result, striking a balance between the need to understand news reporting, the impact of stories on reconciliation in a politically sensitive situation and understanding the impact of security sector reforms.

“It should have units on journalism in the social and digital era focusing on digital reporting, fact checking, covering hostile situations, media law and ethics, developing ideas for television and documentary production so Somalia can get the right professionals who can tell the country’s own story,” he said.

“Proper training will bring responsible journalism which will boost public morale and eliminate the blame that some of us [journalists] face occasionally that our coverage of issues at times undermines state security.”

He said the curriculum should also focus on speech writing, interviewing witnesses, photo editing, as well as data journalism to enable journalists to monitor reports and report competently on audits and probe financial issues.

Even though the Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education currently lacks a regulatory body to review and assess the curriculum, Wasuge said it should concentrate on imparting the ethics of journalism and equip journalists with the skills necessary for modern day journalism and communication.

National reconstruction

“In today's world, the media has considerable influence on political establishments. Professional journalism would definitely contribute to the reconstruction of the country. It could help promote transparency and good governance, reduce corruption, and advance the government accountability to the public, among others,” Wasuge said.

“Journalists in Somalia face many challenges including security, underpayment and lack of training and personal development opportunities. Public and non-government organisations that assist journalists should intensify, encourage, support and offer training opportunities to Somali journalists across the country too.”

Hassan Ali Khayre, current Somali prime minister, in an address during the launch of the faculty in August this year, said he was hopeful that the training would give graduates skills for “healthy reporting”.

“Journalism encourages development, realising national vision, boosting good governance, and helps produce and keep the unity of the nation,” he said.

“The university has registered up to 1,500 students and though this is a new beginning, it’s nowhere near the old days when the university was the main producer of Somali graduates in their thousands,” he said, adding: “With this faculty launch we are headed there to the good old days.”

Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, who also spoke at the event, said: “The relaunch of the faculty is part of Somalia media development which in turn will assist in championing good governance, offer checks and balances as well as promoting accountability.”