Today sees the start of a major international conference on Somalia hosted by the UK government in London. It is designed to inject fresh urgency into international efforts to support the rebuilding of this most fragile and fragile states. On the agenda will be issues of piracy, security, terrorism and a continuing - if thankfully slightly improving - humanitarian crisis.
The principal focus of the meeting is likely to rest on how to create a functioning and legitimate government capable of ensuring that the rule of law reaches across the country (however that country may be defined, given that Somalia currently also includes self-governing territories of Puntland and Somaliland).
The status and recognition of the role of media in the future of Somalia is unlikely to feature prominently in the discussions. According to research carried out by BBC Media Action, media's role is likely to have a significant effect on the future stability and success of the country and should not be forgotten.
BBC Media Action has been working in Somalia for almost a decade. It has worked both with the most trusted source of news and information for Somalis, the BBC Somali Service and with local broadcast and other partners. Projects have focused on raising public understanding and debate of the constitution building process in the country and building the capacity of local journalists and radio producers to produce conflict-sensitive media outputs. It has also supported efforts at generating constructive dialogue between communities and local authorities, to provide programming to improve public health and, most recently, the broadcast through the BBC Somali Service of potentially life-saving information to those affected by the humanitarian crisis in the country.
In 2011, we also carried out, with support from the European Commission, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Open Society Institute a major piece of research into the role of media in the country. The research included focus group discussions across Somalia, interviews with journalists, media organisations, government officials and policymakers as well as content analysis of key Somali media. A policy brief on the findings can be found here [PDF].
The title of the policy brief is The Media of Somalia: a force for moderation?
Such a title will surprise some. Media in countries like Somalia sometimes have a bad reputation. They are too often prone to being captured or co-opted by factional groups in society and used to foment ethnic, religious or other tension and conflict.
That has certainly happened in the past in Somalia. "Radio stations belonged to clans and warlords and reported what was good for the clan or the sub clan", said one of the people we interviewed. "It has been very unprofessional at the beginning and they fomented social hatred", he said.
Another argued that "It is this sensationalism that has somehow [infected] the Somali media, glorifying war or talking about fighting the whole time. Or warlords being interviewed threatening each other, which was very popular and people enjoyed getting a daily dose of this sensation."
These comments mostly referred to the decade or so following the fall of hardline President Siad Barre in 1991, which ushered in two decades of instability and war. More recently, it is al-Shabab that has sought to intimidate, capture or control the media. "Al-Shabab brutally has struck fear in the heart of journalists, forcing them to employ self-censorship", said one interviewee. "Al-Shabab killed many [journalists] just as a lesson to the rest," said another.
This history of media falling into the wrong hands could suggest that governments in countries such as Somalia might be justified in keeping a tight rein on media.
The conclusion of the research carried out by BBC Media Action is the opposite.
Our reports argue that, left to their own devices, with a fair, functioning and free regulatory structure and with a modicum of external support, a free and plural media in Somali are likely to be a force for moderation. Drawing such a conclusion is based on two main pieces of evidence.
First and foremost, ordinary Somalis have become highly adept at understanding who owns which media and they are increasingly demanding media that reflects a multiplicity of perspectives, not a media that spins the line of whoever owns it. In our extensive focus group discussions, Somalis expressed irritation at media that fostered tension; people are tired of war, and tired too of media that promotes conflict. If media want to be successful and popular in Somalia, they reflect plurality, not extremism. "One of the expert Somali interviewees summed this up when he said “I think the Somalis are becoming much more sophisticated people".
Such demand for moderation is not new. The most successful and popular radio stations, other than international stations like the BBC, have been commercial stations like Radio Shabelle and HornAfrik. "I think radio tends to play a moderating role in Somalia because it has so often been sophisticated", says one interviewee. "Radio stations have tended to mimic the BBC in putting two conflicting voices on the radio, and that has a moderating influence." When radio is immoderate it tends to fail, no more spectacularly than when al-Shabab has taken over or controlled radio stations. Audiences have tended to fall off rapidly. "People have been switching off from radios controlled by al-Shabab", said one interviewee. "Mainly they carry sermons from the chief of al-Shabab every Friday, they run Quranic content and translation ... but when you ask people for example in Kismayo do they listen, they say no."
Somalis, this research suggests, are among the most media literate people in Africa. Things may change, but our research suggests that they want moderation from their media.
The other reason why media is a force for moderation is because of the extraordinary courage of Somali journalists who persevere in defying constant threats of intimidation and murder. Just three weeks have passed since the assassination of 29-year-old journalist Hassan Osman Abdi, a producer with the award winning Shabelle radio. Abdikariim Hashi Kadiye, Deputy Director at Radio Dusamareeb, who also worked for an NGO, was also killed recently, the latest in a grim history of journalistic assassinations. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that Somalia is the most dangerous country in Africa to be a journalist.
There is increasing demand for strong, moderate content on Somalia's airwaves from the people of Somalia. Thanks to the extraordinary courage of such journalists, there is a continuing supply of such content too.
No-one expects the London Somalia conference to usher in a fresh and rapid dawn of liberal democracy in a country with such immense governance challenges or solve the problems of Somalia overnight. Nevertheless, support and commitment to a free and plural media in the country need not wait. The people of Somalia are asking for such media and deserve it. So too, does the memory of Hassan Osman Abdi, Abdikariim Hashi Kadiye and the many other journalists killed in the service of Somali journalism.
James Deane is the Director of Policy at BBC Media Action. All blog posts by BBC Media Action reflect the perspectives of the author. They should not be taken to represent the views of the BBC itself.