October 2022 and October 2023: These are the months that forever altered the landscape of our Somali media community. In those fateful days, we lost two colleagues, friends, and rising beacons of journalistic integrity. Their names were Mohamed Isse Hassan Koonaa and Abdifatah Moalim Nur, known as Qeys, and their absence has left an indelible void in journalism.
As a journalist, I have often marvelled at the power of words to shape narratives, uncover truths, and ignite change. Koonaa and Qeys were true exemplars of this power, harnessing their skills and unwavering dedication to shed light on stories that mattered. They reminded us of the profound impact journalism can have, even in the face of adversity.
Now, as I sit down to reflect on their lives and the tragic circumstances of their departure, I find myself grappling with a sense of grief, outrage, and profound loss. We, the guardians of truth, have lost two of our own to the forces we have pledged to expose.
This article is not just a eulogy; it’s a testament to the unwavering courage and determination that defined Koonaa and Qeys. It is a call to action, urging us to remember their legacy and to confront the dangers and challenges that journalists face every day. Through their stories, we must find inspiration to carry on the work they hold so dear.
On this day, October 29, 2022, around 2:10 p.m. local time on a Saturday, journalist Mohamed Isse Hassan Koonaa was writing a script for a video report on a speech by President Hassan Mohamud when an explosion rocked KM4 junction in Mogadishu. The building housing Koonaa’s media organization shook, and glass windows crashed to the floor. The reporter, however, was undeterred; he thought the explosion occurred nearby and was eager to witness it firsthand.
He headed towards Zoobe junction, about eight minutes later; a second, even more significant explosion shook the area. Koonaa’s friend, video journalist Osman Mohamud Osman, became concerned about Koonaa’s well-being and tried to call him. After several attempts, someone answered the call. “This young man is dead; he is lying on the road.” That voice was of a soldier who picked up the call.Koonaa, at the age of 31, studied multimedia journalism at the University of Garden City in Khartoum, Sudan, and returned to Somalia in 2017 to pursue his career.
We used to have dinner at small restaurants in Mogadishu before he went to Sudan, and after his return, he continued to emphasize his commitment to reporting on humanitarian stories. “If my video report can make a difference in the life of a person in need, that’s more significant to me than covering politicians,” he would often express.
Koonaa had a traumatic upbringing, marred by the civil war that plagued the country in the 1990s. He tragically lost family members to violence in Mogadishu and South Africa. He recounted that his parents died when he was very young, victims of unjust hands.
A relative, who preferred to remain anonymous, told VOA Somali that Koonaa’s father was hit by a mortar when Koonaa was about four years old. His mother, on the other hand, succumbed to a stray bullet. Koonaa and his only brother were raised by their grandmother. On July 12, 2021, Koonaa shared with his friends, including me, that gangs had killed his only brother, Mahad Isse Hassan, “Mahad Kumando,” near Durban, South Africa.
Koonaa had unwavering faith in the ability of Somali journalism to adapt and grow, asserting that journalists would continue to find new approaches, tools, and perspectives to instigate empathy, outrage, and critical thinking about crises and their narratives. He firmly believed that the number of humanitarian journalists in Somalia would increase despite the prevailing focus on politics and security. His optimism in contributing to the community was boundless.
The loss of the two journalists in the suicide explosions was devastating, but Abdifatah’s passing was particularly shocking and fateful. On the evening of October 16, 2023, around 9:00 p.m., Abdifatah Qeys, the director of Somali Cable Television, was among several people peacefully enjoying tea outside the Blue Sky restaurant near the national museum when a suicide bomber, concealed explosives, targeted them. The police command confirmed that only Abdifatah lost his life in the attack, while four others sustained injuries.
Abdifatah possessed all the qualities of an exceptional media manager; if there was a gold standard for media management, he embodied it. During the last holy month of Ramadan, I called Abdifatah to inform him about an upcoming workshop and asked him to send a journalist from Somali Cable Television to attend. He readily agreed and decided to send Salma Haji Hussein, a young female journalist, to the training. Salma later revealed that Abdifatah was a great motivator for female journalists, consistently encouraging them to enhance their skills.
Both Koonaa and Qeys had a profound impact on the growth of Somali media. We had known each other for a decade, and they believed that as journalists, they were the voice for the voiceless. Abdifatah had served as the director of Xurmo Community Radio, a radio station that tirelessly served the community during difficult times in Mogadishu. Koonaa, on the other hand, had a penchant for humanitarian reports. Both shared the belief that a journalist must serve the community and, in doing so, be exceptional.
Abdifatah Moalim Nur Qeys, the director of Somali Cable Television, helped train numerous young journalists in storytelling and broadcasting skills. During his funeral in the capital, these young journalists found it difficult to accept that Abdifatah would never return. Fortunately, Abdifatah’s legacy will forever be etched in the annals of the media industry as a mentor to many young media professionals who continue to carry on his work. He was a director deeply loved by his staff.
Somalia is regarded as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, as they face threats from both government and militant groups like Al-Shabab and a few clan militias. According to the Somali Mechanism for Safety of Journalists (SMSJ) record, 63 Journalists and reporters were detained or arrested, four Journalists were murdered, eight were injured, and 25 others were tortured. At the same time, two media stations have been shut down in Somalia, including Somaliland, from June 2022 to June 2023.
The loss of our two dear friends has heightened our apprehension regarding our safety and the manner in which we conduct our work as journalists. In response, we have approached Somali leaders, urging the imperative need for enhanced safety measures and heightened protection for media professionals.
As we remember and honor the lives and work of Koonaa and Qeys, it is incumbent upon us not only to grieve but also to act. Their legacy should not be confined to memories; it should inspire change and action.
Koonaa and Qeys left behind grieving families who will need not only our sympathy but also our support. Koonaa has left children and a wife, while Qeys has left behind two wives. Consider contributing to assistance programs for their loved ones. Support organizations and initiatives dedicated to the safety of journalists.
One of the most meaningful ways to carry on Koonaa and Qeys’ legacy is to mentor and support aspiring journalists. When journalists are threatened or harmed, demand accountability from authorities and insist on a thorough investigation. Advocate for the safety and protection of media professionals, both in your local community and on a global scale.
In the memory of Koonaa and Qeys, let us channel our grief and sorrow into meaningful action. By coming together as a community and working towards a safer and more supportive environment for journalists, we can ensure their commitment to truth and justice was not in vain. They may be gone, but their impact on our world will continue to resonate.