How an all-women news outlet is changing Somalia’s media landscape

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The dream of becoming a journalist began for Kiin Hasan Fakat when she was just 10 years old. Her family had joined legions of Somalis displaced by war and hunger and since 2007 had been living across the border in northern Kenya, in one of the largest refugee camps in the world.

Each day, Ms. Fakat listened to her uncle’s small radio, which was powered by AA-sized batteries, and tuned to the Voice of America Somali service.

And each day, she became more aware of – and inspired by – the reporting of Asha Ibrahim Aden, a veteran correspondent who spoke with authority and confidence, and whose example showed Ms. Fakat what a Somali newswoman could achieve.

Why We Wrote This

Somalia’s first all-women news outlet, Bilan, looks for powerful human stories often overlooked by Somalia’s male-dominated media scene. High among the newswomen’s achievements: serving as examples of professional excellence to other Somali women.

“I used to say, ‘Maybe I can be like this female journalist. I like her reports,’” recalls Ms. Fakat, who was raised in Kenya’s Dadaab Camp but was originally from the southern Somali town of Buale.

Today it is Ms. Fakat who has herself become a role model for Somalia’s aspiring female journalists, as part of the reporting team of the country’s first all-women news outlet, called Bilan, which means “bright and clear” in the Somali language.

With the aim of reporting powerful human stories often overlooked by Somalia’s male-dominated media – from the personal impact of chronic drought and the local ravages of climate change, to living with HIV and issues of addiction and gender-based violence – the six women of Bilan are expanding the practice of journalism in Somalia like never before.

High among their pioneering achievements in a staunchly patriarchal society: Serving as examples of professional excellence to other Somali women.

“A lot of Somali girls who are journalists contact us to join us, and we support them. Everything we write, they say, ‘You did a great job,’” says Ms. Fakat, clad in typical Somali dress, with head-covering and a long shawl.

“We are encouraging our sisters,” says Fathi Mohamed Ahmed, the chief editor of Bilan, interviewed in Mogadishu. “They call us and say, ‘Fathi, can you help me? I want to join Bilan; I want to do this story, how can you help me?’”

Part of their mission is to “bring taboo subjects into the open,” notes Ms. Ahmed’s Bilan biography. “Our sisters, mothers, and grandmothers will talk to us about issues they never dare speak about with men.”

“A game changer”

Launched last April and supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Bilan has brought together a half-dozen highly qualified female Somali journalists, each with years of experience writing news or broadcasting on radio stations or local TV.

Jocelyn Mason, the UNDP resident representative in Mogadishu, described the ambitious aims of Bilan at its creation.

“We hope this will be a game changer for the Somali media scene, opening up new opportunities for women journalists and shining a light on new subjects that have been ignored, particularly those that are important for women,” Ms. Mason said at the time.

In interviews conducted in the six months prior to launching Bilan, the UNDP found that Somali women journalists “reported being harassed not just on the streets but even in their own offices.”

“They are often denied training opportunities and promotions, and when a woman does reach a position of authority, she is often ignored while more junior [male] figures get to call the shots,” the UNDP said in a statement. “News coverage reflects this, with a lack of programming on issues that are seen as primarily affecting women, including childcare, domestic abuse, and equal political representation.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

Fathi Mohamed Ahmed, chief editor of Somalia’s first all-women news outlet, Bilan, on a rooftop in Mogadishu, Somalia, Nov. 8, 2022. Her Bilan biography says part of the outlet’s mission is to “bring taboo subjects into the open.”

On top of providing stories to local Somali outlets through the broadcast platform of Mogadishu-based Dalson media, Bilan is reaching a global audience by publishing stories in foreign news organizations such as the Guardian and BBC in the United Kingdom and El Pais in Spain.

“Before Bilan, our Somali female journalists were very weak. They were feeling fear for everything, [like] making decisions – they would wait for men, for editors and for the directors,” says Ms. Ahmed.

“But now, after starting this media unit only for female journalists, we have a lot of women who are interested,” she says. Applying for the vacant post of editor were 13 qualified women, which Ms. Ahmed calls an “amazing” number ready to “make decisions in the editor’s room.”

The result is that Bilan stories offer very different fare from what is produced by the country’s other news outlets.

“What is going on in Somali media, they just focus on politics and conflict, nothing else,” says Ms. Ahmed. “But there are so many stories to do on Somali society, especially about Somali people, and what is going on here. We are going to have all those stories.”

Bilan’s journalism sparks action

Bilan reporting has already had an impact. An article last year about the lack of medical facilities for displaced Somalis living in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu led to the creation of a small hospital at the site.

One in-depth article in the Guardian last October helped raise an urgent alarm about Somalia’s looming humanitarian crisis and famine. Bilan journalists visiting three different regions of the country warned against repeating the mistakes of 2011, when some 100,000 Somalis died of hunger before there was an official declaration of famine, which ultimately left a total of 260,000 dead.

Finding oft-hidden voices is what Bilan does best. Ms. Fakat says that 80% of her interviews are with women, and Bilan works with civil society activists, especially on issues for women and human rights.

One recent story delved into the challenge faced by HIV-positive Somalis, who are often treated as outcasts, even by their own families. Another television report focused on students at a school with special needs, where the teachers and principal also have special needs, thereby “inspiring the students that they too can have bright, productive futures,” according to Bilan’s description of the report.

Also made for TV, a report showcasing the work and challenges overcome by the only female taxi driver in the northern coastal city of Bosaso.

And Ms. Fakat was in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November to report from the COP27 climate summit, as part of her ongoing reporting about how climate change is affecting Somalia. On a recent Friday morning, she was on the Lido Beach in Mogadishu, speaking to volunteers who each week collect trash washed up on the popular beach.

“Absolutely, we see some progress,” says Ms. Ahmed, whose ground-breaking example includes continuing to work, even as a mother with two young children. A third child was born in early December, soon after she was promoted to chief editor of Bilan.

“We talk to the people, and this is good for our [work], for our culture,” says Ms. Ahmed. “We talk to the young ladies, we tell them sometimes: ‘Don’t listen [to detractors], go ahead.’”

A grandmother’s approval

But the female journalists of Bilan are not just challenging local newsroom culture rife with harassment and de facto glass ceilings. They sometimes have to convince their own families that they should pursue their dreams to be professional journalists.

With a smile, Ms. Ahmed says she faced resistance from her own grandmother.

“I love journalism, talking to the people, [and] writing something,” she says.

“My grandmother always said, ‘It’s not good for you, stop! Stop, stop, stop! Please don’t do this job,’” she recalls. “I told her, ‘I love this,’ and I hid my work when I started out, for eight months.”