Somalia debate walkout highlights tension over state control vs media plurality

Somali National TV has cancelled live debate plans.

A boycott of a televised debate in Mogadishu by presidential candidates is about more than just the credibility of the election process itself. It is also about whether Somalis see state-run media as credible and independent compared to private broadcasters.

Twelve candidates walked out after the Somalia National Television (SNTV) staff announced that the Tuesday debate would not be aired live as earlier planned. They blame the incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of misusing his influence over state-run television. The president was not among the first batch of 12 candidates scheduled to take part in the debate.

The dispute over live versus pre-recorded airings points to concerns that state television or radio staff could manipulate or cut the recordings, for example, by giving more airtime to segments featuring the incumbent or by cutting out critical statements by his challengers.

This was to be the first presidential debate. Presidential hopefuls including former President Sharif Shaikh Ahmed and former Puntland President Abdirahman Farole were among those who walked out of the debate arena at Parliament Hall in Mogadishu.

At a press conference at Jazeera Hotel afterwards, a platform of political parties called the Coalition for Change explained the walkout. Ridwan Hirsi said on behalf of the group, “The debate of presidential candidates was approved by the Somali parliament and they are the only ones who should decide to cancel it. And the debate must be attended by private media – not only the Somali government TV.”

Ridwan stressed, “We have decided to drop out from the debate because the organizing committee did not take into consideration our request that it be aired on private media besides the national broadcaster.”

The opposition candidates reportedly considered holding their own alternative live debate on TV Universal, though this did not go forward.

Suspicions around the planned debate were heightened by an internet outage in the days preceding it. Somalia national TV staff and the government said the internet outage was accidental and blamed it for causing the misunderstanding between the two sides, while opposition politicians hinted that the outage could have been orchestrated.

There are also questions as to whether the proposed television ‘debate’ was actually to be in the format of a debate. Opposition candidates preferred a free-wheeling live discussion in which candidates would face questions from about 100 media and civil society personalities, whereas state TV instead seems to have planned a simpler format that looked more like sets of individual interviews or prepared speeches.

Some observers were disappointed by the cancellation of the debate. A civic group called Wakiil said that it “raised serious questions as to whether the presidential elections will be free and fair.”

“The public needs to be informed,” added Wakiil. “The Parliament election process was marred by corruption, intimidation and manipulation, let’s hope that the presidential election will not be the same.”

Somalia’s presidential election is set to take place February 8th. The new president will be chosen in an indirect election by members of the upper and lower houses of parliament.