Somalia’s Government Just Banned Calling Al Shabab by Its Name

That’s a really stupid idea

Somalia’s Government Just Banned Calling Al Shabab by Its Name Somalia’s Government Just Banned Calling Al Shabab by Its Name
Gen. Abdirahman Mohamud Turyare, the chief of Somalia’s Intelligence and Security Services, recently told Somali journalists to stop calling the Al Qaeda-linked Somali terror... Somalia’s Government Just Banned Calling Al Shabab by Its Name

Gen. Abdirahman Mohamud Turyare, the chief of Somalia’s Intelligence and Security Services, recently told Somali journalists to stop calling the Al Qaeda-linked Somali terror group Al Shabab by its name.

Al Shabab means “the youth” in Arabic. But Turyare doesn’t believe they should be allowed brand themselves that way. “We should not allow this good name to be dirtied,” Turyare told journalists at a function at the Somali Information Ministry.

“This enemy we are fighting is called Ugus.”

The government-run Radio Mogadishu and other state-financed media outlets have already begun calling the terrorists Ugus. The new name is a Somali acronym for Ururka Gumaadka Ummadda Soomaaliyeed — roughly meaning “the Group that Massacres the Somali People.”

It’s a terrible idea.

Well, in fairness, it’s a pretty accurate title — Al Shabab is a group of murderers whose main targets include college kids, families and shopping malls. But Turyare’s decree is potentially dangerous, as it now puts local journalists on the spot.

Al Shabab is a neutral term, and it’s what the group calls itself. But journalists could now face pressure to take sides in the conflict, turning them into targets in what’s already one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism in the world.

At top and above — African Union troops patrol Mogadishu. David Axe photos

To be sure, the situation has improved in Somalia. Once one of the world’s most notorious failed states, its security has improved drastically in the last decade. A combination of African Union peacekeepers, a new government and increased aid all played a huge role in the turnaround.

Besides that, Somalis are tired of war. Better security means markets are reopening, ports are doing better business and journalists can do their jobs, even though the country is far from safe.

During the last few years, Somalia has risen in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index. But don’t get too excited — in 2015 it’s still near the bottom, ranking at number 172 out of 180 countries.

It’s tough being a journalist in most places. But Somali journalists have it really tough. They must navigate a complicated honor-based society of clan and tribal interests where saying the wrong thing can lead to kidnapping, torture or assassination.

They have to contend with terrorists, warlords, gangsters and pirates.

Somalia’s young government has regularly raided and shut down radio stations and arrested journalists who put out “dangerous” stories. But the most intrepid Somali journalists have managed to gain access to both sides of the conflict.

That takes impartiality, time and a whole lot of trust. Making journalists use an adversarial name for Al Shabab could make an already difficult task near impossible.

It’s unclear what the consequences would be for ignoring the government’s preferred language — Turyare didn’t specify consequences. But Al Shabab won’t hesitate to attack journalists or anyone else they perceive as an enemy.

The group has struggled against A.U. and Somali troops, and Al Shabab’s weakened hold on the battlefield has made it more unpredictable, desperate and ruthless. On April 2, the group killed 147 people at Garissa University College in Kenya.

Turyare’s decree isn’t just childish and petty — it’s dangerous. And it won’t likely hurt Al Shabab anyway.

Members of Al Shabab responded by saying that they will refer to the Somali government as Ugus as well. But their acronym stands for “the Group that Subjects the Somali People to Humiliation.”

Which is to illustrate that the group’s sympathizers and supporters won’t change their opinions because the government has a new nickname for them. This really can only hurt journalists … and maybe the government.

If Somali journalists comply, terrorists could start adding names to their hit list. If reporters don’t comply, the public could interpret it as a signal that journalists don’t take the state seriously — either as protectors or enforcers.

Pretty much everyone loses except Al Shabab.