Hmmm… – 2

joesaccoonsatire1200

On the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, by far the best and most balanced, insightful response I saw at the time was cartoonist, Joe Sacco’s ‘On Satire’. By all means post ‘Je Suis..’ or colour in your F*c*book profile pic – but they don’t require deep thought about what is really going on.

Death by Hashtag

Journalists now risk crucifixion on social media if they offend the sensibilities of Africans – maybe that’s a good thing.

DeathbyHashtag

As famous as the oral tradition of the Somalis is, that doesn’t mean that they don’t occasionally commit things to paper. As it transpires, and in spite of high (although mainly rural) levels of illiteracy, there is actually a voracious appetite for seeing the Somali language in print.

Riding on the back of the success of the long-running and internationally recognised Hargeisa International Book Festival, a local activist, Diini, decided Mogadishu needed its own book festival. So, on a rainy morning in late August (it rains in Mogadishu – not a lot of people know that) at the City Palace Hotel, books perched like birds on the hand and the poets and authors of the city strutted their stuff in front of an audience of hundreds. (On the two subsequent days of the festival, that became thousands: people waiting for the weekend, people waiting to see if it’s worth the risk.)

The President attends: as an academic, he is obviously a book lover. Ugaaso Abukar Boocow, made internationally famous by her jocular Instagram miniatures of life for a Diaspora returner (@ugaasada), is also there. (Another surprise: she’s quite small. And bossy. And very good looking.) The wifi, generously provided by the telecoms company, Hormuud, buckles under the weight of postings.

And then, amidst all exuberance and the superlatives, the #mogadishurising and #theafricathemedianevershowsyou: a bomb blast.

Not an actual bomb blast. The City Palace Hotel is right beside the headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), and couldn’t be safer. The BBC provide the bomb blast. Mary Harper, a known Somaliphile and author of ‘Getting Somalia Wrong’, publishes a positive piece about the festival. So far so good. But the image attached to the article is the stereotype of Mogadishu: a street desolated by an explosion.

A new hashtag appears, started by Mohamed Ahmed Cantoobo (@cantoobo), another activist, who runs Act for Somalia: #someonetellmaryharper.

#someonetellmaryharper #Somalia is moving forward regardless of how @mary_harper and BBC chooses to portray

Others agree:

#someonetellmaryharper enough is enough, Somalis are defining their own narrative, and stereotypes won’t define us

@MogadishuNews

And, after the successful conclusion of the Book Fair without incident, still further:

In Mogadishu, ricocheting bullets and bouncing bazookas is replaced by retractable and quill pens #someonetellmaryharper

@Mazario2012

Abdihakim Ainte spreads the word:

Hello Kenyans: this hashtag #someonetellmaryharper is equivalent to #someonetellcnn. Speaks of Somali narrative. Please use and promote.

@AbdihakimAinte

#someonetellmaryharper is a development of another hashtag, developed during another case of western-media-offends-African-sensibilities-and-gets-hashtagged-to-death, #someonetellcnn. In the run up to the Obama visit to Kenya. CNN ran a feature (from the US, not from its Nairobi bureau), noting that POTUS was headed to ‘a region that’s a hotbed of terror’ – provoking a ferocious response from Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) using the hashtag #someonetellcnn and eventually forcing an apology from CNN in the face of cancelled advertising contracts.

The BBC response was diversionary, muted. ‘An editor chose the photo,’ claims Mary Harper, ‘not me.’ That’s quite possible: the BBC has resisted pestering (mainly from this callsign, but also from BBC Africa staff) to update the map of the country it uses online, a map shows al-Shabaab controlling most of southern and central Somalia. It did: until 2012. Even last month the BBC used the out of date map for stories detailing the fall of towns like Baardheere and Dinsoor, deep in the heart of what used to be al-Shabaab territory. But the BBC doesn’t need to worry about big advertising contracts in the way CNN does. So the out-of-date map continues to appear. They are the BBC, after all.

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The BBC map of Somalia – al-Shabaab controlled territory in green

Slide2

What al-Shabaab actually controls (in red)

After six days, use of the #someonetellmaryharper dwindles. (That’s double the normal duration for a ‘Trending’ hashtag. Somalis are persistent.)

But BBC or not, western journalists beware: young, articulate, connected Africans, brought up on Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’, are watching out for the next stereotype, the next attempt to use Africa to prove your adventure-journalist creds. And they have a hashtag with your name on it.

‘Are you Filming?’ ‘We’re Always Filming’

Vice Ring

A DAY OUT WITH VICE NEWS

‘These men are pornographers?’ says Abdi, one of the President’s comms team.

‘No, it’s just an attention grabbing name. It’s like Virgin. People used to think that was risqué.’

‘I don’t know… In fact, no, the President won’t see these people. As you say, it is risky.’ I know better than to try to clarify the homophone.

Moving down the feudal pyramid from the President in search of someone who is willing to speak to the Vice News crew, it gets no easier.

‘Vice did those great videos on the Islamic State.’

‘They make the videos of the beheadings, the burning of that pilot alive?’

‘No, I mean –‘ More rejection.


But we get there in the end – after completely re-organising the programme. The Minister for Planning, Abdi Aynte, is a former Jazeera journalist and also happens to have written his Masters thesis on the origins of al-Shabaab, so the pornographers/IS horror video producers get a decent insight into where the organisation came from, where it is now and where it might be going. And the government gets an input. Which is important.

Because Vice News, to those who are familiar with them, are neither pornographers or the PR team for Da’esh but are instead the spearhead of a kind of digital gonzo movement that is making news interesting again. (That’s ‘gonzo’ as in Hunter S Thompson, not as in porn.) Their material on the fighting in Ukraine was outstanding: their inside account of life under IS as alarming as it was riveting (their journalist had to take a break after filming, having got ‘a bit too close’.) And they will make this documentary whether the government cooperates or not.

A UN chum improvises a trip to a Defector Rehabilitation Camp in Baidoa, out in the hinterland of Somalia towards the Ethiopian border, and the trip coalesces into something. Vice News are happy.

It’s important that they are happy because the devil will find work for idle meeja to do if their ‘handlers’ don’t keep them occupied. They might end up filing a different story entirely. Like a story about all the boozing and shagging that goes on in the Mogadishu airport compound, where the UN and various embassies are hubbed, a story that came about because a journalist wasn’t kept occupied.

Or it might be a revenge story, as happened to an erstwhile colleague of mine back in Iraq in 2005 in the aftermath of two British SF soldiers being lifted by the shady Iraqi cops they were meant to be spying on, plunging the city into days of rioting. His opening gambit to the assembled ladies and gentlemen of Her Majesty’s Press: ‘You’ve been foisted upon us so don’t expect us to happy that you’re here.’ His reward: a feature on him and how shit he was.

*      *      *

In the back of the armour we chat about the interview with Aynte.

‘Some of his comments were obviously party line,’ says Suroosh Alvi, the host of the programme that is being filmed (‘TERROR’: a major documentary series on TERROR), who also happens to be one of the founders of Vice. ‘But very good, you can tell he was a journalist.’

Which is interesting, as the Vice crew (or should it be ‘VICE’, because that’s the way it’s cast on Suroosh’s trademark signet ring) pride themselves on not being trained journalists.

And that makes for a very different media visit from what I am used to (it’s been a while since I did any media handling) and also from what the private security company that is driving us around is used to as well. The mainstream media have become so bureaucratised, with all their disclaimers and risk assessments and their entourage of security advisors that their trips have become a breeze, since their masters are so risk averse and they have been brought up with the pernicious ‘embed’ as the norm.

But Vice are different. They have to be restrained from dashing to the Jazeera Palace Hotel when an al-Shabaab truck bomb peels the frontage off, killing 15. (But they get there later.) They are nearly in tears when we have to board the plane back to Mogadishu, a plane we cannot miss (unless we fancy a 5 day layover in Baidoa): the commander of the Ethiopian garrison offers to let them go up in an attack helicopter to see some action. But they got to meet some real, live al-Shabaab defectors, so the disappointment quickly passes.


The conversation in the armour drifts to the realities of the campaign against al-Shabaab. I nearly have an unguarded moment, but something from years ago, maybe the Defence Media Operations course, kicks in.

‘Are you filming?’ I ask the cameraman, Chris, who is squashed into the boot of the armour so Suroosh and I can sprawl on the back seat (and so Suroosh can do a piece to camera if need be).

‘We’re always filming,’ they reply, in unison.