Somalia's first all-women newsroom redefines narrative for women scribes
Despite Somalia being Africa's most dangerous place for journalists, with over 50 casualties since 2010, Bilan allows women to set news agenda and defy patriarchy
Fathi Mohamed Ahmed manages Somalia's sole all-female newsroom, operating in one of the world's most perilous environments for journalists. Somalia ranks as Africa's most dangerous nation for journalists, with over 50 journalist casualties since 2010, as per Reporters Without Borders. In the Committee to Protect Journalists' Global Impunity Index, which measures unsolved journalist murders relative to a country's population, Somalia occupies the lowest spot.
'Bilan', which means 'to shine a light', is Somalia's only women-operated newsroom. The media house has defied prejudice to thrive in a society entrenched in patriarchal norms. Bilan consistently delivers a blend of daily news updates and in-depth features, catering to local and occasionally global audiences. Nevertheless, the road to success has been far from smooth for Ahmed and her team.
Guided by one of the nation's rare female senior news producers, chief editor Fathi Mohamed Ahmed, this six-member team is dedicated to generating content across TV, radio, and online platforms. They focus on critical topics such as gender-based violence, women in politics, and female entrepreneurship, while also having the autonomy to make editorial decisions. Bilan also offers training and mentorship facilitated by accomplished Somali and global journalists, among them the BBC's Lyse Doucet and Razia Iqbal, Channel 4's Lyndsey Hilsum, and Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow.
Funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this initiative is a year-long pilot project, but Jocelyn Mason, UNDP's resident representative in Mogadishu, is confident that it will evolve into a permanent set-up, with potential expansion into Somalia's various regions.
“We hope this will be a gamechanger for the Somali media scene, opening up new opportunities for women journalists and shining a light on subjects that have been ignored, particularly those that are important for women,” said Mason to The Guardian. The project's launch followed a six-month investigation by the United Nations into women's roles in Somali media. A majority of the journalists interviewed during the UN investigation reported workplace harassment, denied essential training and promotions, and were disregarded by male colleagues, even when holding senior positions.
The chief editor, Fathi Mohamed Ahmed, candidly admits to Reuters, “Sometimes my soul tells me I cannot continue the work because of insecurity and societal pressure. However, it is a career that I loved since my childhood and a dream which still lives in me.” As a deeply patriarchal society, some people find it difficult to discuss women's issues publicly, she says, adding that some individuals complain that Bilan's stories blemish the country's reputation.
“We want to cover these issues and challenge societal beliefs that women should stay at home,” the editor-in-chief, Nasrin Mohamed Ibrahim, who has worked as a journalist for 12 years and is a founding member of the Somali Women Journalist Organisation, told Guardian.
Despite the risks, Ahmed recognizes how important it is to shed light on "taboo" subjects such as puberty, menstruation, the female drug epidemic, and women living with HIV. "We know Somalis, for them girls' issues are shameful," she said to Reuters, adding, "for example, signs of adolescence like menstruation, periods. Girls are not taught the symptoms of womanhood in the classroom."
One of Bilan's most widely-shared stories this year revolved around menstruation, drawing over 130,000 views and dozens of comments on Facebook. Every woman journalist aims to work for her people and her country. I believe Bilan is the place where Somali women journalists will be supported to make their dreams come true if they get involved”, Shukri Mohamed, a journalist at Bilan told Reuters. This particular story sparked the interest of the Ministry of Women, which extended an offer to collaborate on an advocacy campaign. Remarkably, it has also garnered support from at least one Islamic cleric, a segment of Somali society that often holds the most conservative views.
Bilan has revolutionised the news agenda in Somalia, said Abdallah Al Dardari, director of the United Nations Development Programme Regional Bureau for Arab States to Reuters. "With their unique voice and the growing reach of the Bilan Media brand, they're creating a demand for change and better treatment of women and girls that can't be ignored.”
“For too long, Somali women journalists have been treated as second class citizens and Somali news has ignored the stories and voices of half the population; now we are in charge of the boardroom and the narrative,” said Nasrin Mohamed Ibraham, who is taking up the post of Bilan’s Chief Editor to TRT World. “Some people might not like the fact that I play football and lead a media team. But nobody will ever change my mind.”