Monday May 12 2014

Press freedom: A blind journalist


By Desire Karakire

Growing up in a poor family in the outskirts of Mogadishu town, 30 year old Hassan Abdifatah had a dream to become a journalist. At two and a half years old, an ill-fated kick from a donkey one day as he followed his father to the farm left him partially blind.

Young Hassan survived through the next three years of his cheerful carefree infancy with one eye, until again, a second unfortunate incident claimed the remaining of his sight.
Abdifatah was left blind after one of his friends hit his eye in an accident during a sports game.

Born in Marka town in Somalia, his family had moved to Mogadishu a yearlater, where only after a few months, his father, a very strong support system for him, passed away after a period of battling illness. “The family was devastated,” he recalls. “I remember the years that followed were especially hard for my mother, who was left to support my six siblings and myself, a special needs child, having to do several odd jobs to make ends meet.”

This is the story of Hassan Abdifatah Ahmed, a journalist, who in spite of his blindness, manages to bring to sight issues affecting his community.
Hassan has been an active player in the media of Somalia for the last 11 years, regardless of the challenge his visual impairment poses, or Somalia’s fragile security situation.

The 2014 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Boarders ranks the recovering country in the 176th position of 180 countries reviewed in terms of safety for journalists.
Abdifatah resilience and passion for his job, together with his calm, humble character has seen him make a name for himself and an audience of loyal followers.

Abdifatah currently works as a reporter, news anchor and talk show host at Radio Goobjoog in Mogadishu, where he has worked for three years now.
His working day starts at 8am and ends at 5pm, after which he can be found drinking tea with his friends at the street-side kiosks in Mogadishu town.

He does not have many hobbies, he says, as there is only so much his visual limitations permit him do. He says he would like to play football and other sports, but he has learnt to accept that he cannot do everything he wants. This however does not stop him from enjoying a happy fulfilled life like anybody else.
After his evening rendezvous, Abdifatah calls a taxi or gets one of his friends to drive him home. Here, he is happy to be with his family. He has a wife and three little children whom he says are the reason he untiringly works regardless of all the challenges his situation presents, as he wants them to have a good life.

Life has not been easy for this ambitious journalist. He has met unimaginable challenges in his career path and personal life. He recounts a moment during his school days when he came close to giving up on all hope of ever having a normal life.

“I studied up to secondary level. I had wanted to continue and acquire university education, but there was no institution in the country that catered for the needs of people like me. The alternative would have been to travel to the west where they have up to standard schools for the blind, but that is something I never even considered could happen for me,” he says.

“I used to sit in the classroom just to listen to what the teacher was saying. There were cases where the teacher would enter and ask the class to open page this and read or do an exercise,” he smiles. “It was tough.

Discriminated against
Obviously, that is not something I could do anything about so I would just sit. One day that stood out however, was when it was time for the termly examinations.

The teacher gave the exam to everybody else, then turned to me and said, you are blind; you will not do the exam. I will just do you a favour and write for you a few marks on your exam paper,” he recounts.

“Of course this was completely unfair! So I went to the head teacher to complain about the injustice because I had the right just as every other student in that class to do the exam. I had studied for an entire term like they had.

“The head teacher did nothing to help me. In fact, when the results came back, I had been failed and marked as one who missed the examination.”

Changing schools
Hassan was lucky to be transferred to another school after that, which he says is the only reason he did not drop out. At the new school, the teacher sat with him in a separate room and gave him an oral exam. He continued to go forward with burgeoning optimism, until he turned his dream into his real life.

“The reason I wanted to become a journalist is because I had a disadvantage compared to other people. I was a vulnerable group and the media is a powerful institution. I have met people and gone to places I never would have had the chance to had I been just anybody.”

In the line of fire
Asked about his experience as a journalist, Abdifatah is full of stories to tell. He, however, recounts one incident where to date, he does not understand how he did not die from it.

“I woke up in the morning and it was just a regular day like all the others. I went to cover a conference at one of the hotels in the city where many high profile government officials were in attendance.

“While I stood at the gate waiting to be checked in, there were these people who came from nowhere and started shooting randomly! Everybody began to scream and flee the scene. I couldn’t run because I couldn’t see. I had nowhere to go. I fell to the ground and started to crawl, not knowing if I was going away from the danger, or further into it.

Finding refuge
“I was extremely relieved when I came across an Amisom protective barrier that had been built to guard the area from attack. I took cover behind it, but even then, I did not know whether the fire was in front of me, or behind me. All I heard were bullets spraying, and the sound of my heart pounding in my chest,” Abdifatah recalls
According to Abdifatah , there is still a lot the media has to strive for in Somalia. He wishes professional institutions could be set up to train and mentor local journalists.

Challenges beyond impairment
Inadequate pay and the still fragile security situation are some of the most pressing challenges he identifies. He says the constant threat from the al-Shabaab and other disgruntled militias still poses a major threat to the lives of people like him in this career path, as they threaten lives and ban the internet every other day.

Nonetheless, he is positive that all this will get better with the continued improvements in the security of the country by government troops with the support from the African Union Mission in Somalia, to which Uganda greatly contributes.

The headway made
“The government continues to receive financial support from donors in the international community to enable its policies, and with the increased troops for Amisom, we hope to see even more improvement in the security and social service sector.”

Hassan says there is no way to ever repay the various countries that have aided and supported Somalia through her tough times, through Amisom, the humanitarian agencies advocating for the rights of journalists, as well as all the other contributors to press freedom all over the world.

The freedom he enjoys now

“Journalists in Somalia and the country as a whole ought to celebrate the Press Freedom. A lot still needs to be done, but we cannot overlook the fact that there is progress in sight. If for nothing else, at least for the music we can now play and enjoy.

Seven years ago before troops from our neighbours came to Somalia, we were being told by al-Shabaab to rather play the sound of a roaring lion on the radio if we had nothing else, but not music! And disobeying that came with severe consequences!”

On the whole, while conditions are less that ideal, for Abdifatah they are better than they were a few years ago.