3 May: Struggle for press freedom never lets up [Archives:2003/635/Reportage]

May 12 2003

Mohammed Al-Qadhi
The world observes the third of May as the International Press Freedom Day. This observation is a kind of recognition of the importance of journalists and their mission of reporting the truth to the people. Free press is a reflection of a free and democratic society; it plays a significant role in informing the people, enabling them to take the right decisions related to their lives and development of their societies.
The third of May is a good time to recall the obstacles facing this profession and our colleagues who paid their lives as price for conveying the truth.
Despite the fact that Yemen is considered an emerging democracy where press should work freely, we find that journalists continue to face many problems and different sorts of harassment. The government continued last year to detain journalists for expressing their opinions critical to its work. In its Annual Human Rights Country Report published recently, the US Department of State reported some of these violations of press freedom. “Journalists were subject for libel, dismissal from employment or extrajudicial harassment,” the report said. “During the year (2002), approximately 30 journalists from 23 media institutions were investigated, charged or imprisoned. By year's end, the Ministry of Interior also shut down three opposition newspapers,” it added. The number of the cases of violation and abuses during the last few years have been reported to have increased dramatically. Not only journalists like Abdulraheem Mohsen and Ibraheem Hussein were arrested and held incommunicado, the Sana'a court ordered that novelist Wajdi Al-Ahdal should be arrested for allegedly ” abusing Islam and undermining the country's convention in his novel Qawarib Jabaliah. He escaped the country as some fanatics threatened to kill him. Later, he came back after the interference of President Ali Saleh. The US report also said that customs officials confiscate foreign publications regarded as pornographic or objectionable because of religious or political content and that the government restricted academic freedom to some extend because of the extreme politicization of university campuses. The Ministry of Information continued to threaten journalists and foreign media reporters in particular not to report news related to security and military issues. “The government enforced a circular prohibiting publication of information or news pertaining to the armed forces before “consulting” the Ministry of Defense.” Some journalists were harassed or brought before prosecution after reporting an alleged shooting of a military helicopter. The Ministry of Interior continues to threaten journalists through the Information Ministry not to report security and “sensitive” issues unless they get the information from their sources in the Interior Ministry. However, whenever journalists contact Interior officials, they never speak or just reply to government-run press.
These violations and discrimination against non-government media people continue. Although the law stipulate that court trials should be made public, the authorities refused to allow journalists, except those working for government media, to attend some of the trial hearings of the assassin of Jarallah Omar. Police officers deal with journalists in an insulting manner.
The government continues to control electronic media which represents a very important source of information for most of Yemeni people, mainly in the countryside where print media is not available and most of the people are illiterate. Opposition parties have no chance to address the public only during election period. However, opposition parties complained that their platforms were subject to editing while being aired through TV and radio and that some parts which criticize the government were removed during the parliamentary election campaign. The NDI criticized this and recommended in its preliminary report on election that “a provision of access to both broadcast and print media for political parties is necessary beyond any official election campaign period. Moreover, regulations should be promulgated to eliminate political bias in the state-owned media. Restrictions against political expressions including criticism of political parties and the government should be eliminated.”
The government approved of a few weeks ago a draft law of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS). This law is a kind of code of ethics, putting clear the obligations and rights of journalists, and giving the YJS the right to hold journalists violating this law accountable. The draft law is said to have been presented and approved off by government in hasty way before being debated comprehensively by journalists. The law imposes heavy financial burden on press institutions as it conditions that they should pay 3 % of their advertisement revenues to cover the expenses of the YJS. Some journalists said this amount of money will be taken from the salary of journalists working in these institutions. This draft law is expected to be debated soon by the new parliament. Journalists hope that some amendments would be incorporated into this draft law in a way to protect the rights and freedom of journalists.