A Canadian in Yemen: Lets start with the truth [Archives:2002/12/Culture]

March 18 2002

Thomas Froese
For thousands of years, from Socrates to todays postmodernists, the question What is truth? has plagued plenty of people.
We all, in fact, somewhere deep inside, have a need to understand the nature of truth. We crave it so we can have peace in our own lives and, to the best of our ability, with those around us.
As a journalist, then, from a country such as Canada, I cant help but be moved by recent Yemen Times reports on the state of a free press in the Arab world.
In recent issues of the Times, including todays which highlights the latest Human Rights report of the US State Department, details have emerged of how Arab journalists here are forced into self-censorship. At times newspapers in Yemen have even had their licenses pulled, while journalists have been threatened or worse. Its a situation completely unknown in the West.
It seems 10 years ago when Yemen united, things were brighter. It was the spring of 1991 when this country began a very noble path in this part of the world: democracy. Indeed, in 1993 you had the first free elections ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.
On this fresh page, this country also introduced relative freedom of the press. Constructive criticism of the officials was allowed and the government could no longer close newspapers without court approval.
Its unfortunate the wheels of change began to fall off when Yemen was punished for stance in the Gulf War. And one wonders if any country ever fully recovers from civil war, which Yemen then experienced.
While its three-month civil war in 1994 cost, according to The Lonely Planet series, 7,000 lives, plus an estimated US $5.5 billion to an already impoverished Third World economy, it seems it also changed the freedom journalists have to write critically about important issues.
Comfort the afflicted
Nonetheless, in this environment the Yemen Times has grown and matured. Readers are aware of its recent 11th anniversary, and its storied history under the guidance of its late founder Abdulazia al-Saqqaf. A man who understood the journalist creed, to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted, hes been described to me as both brilliant and transparent: a mix not commonly seen in any part of the world.
Having worked with newspapers that have many times the resources as the Times, Im impressed with the determination of al-Saqqafs son Walid, and his dedicated staff, as they now carry the original vision of this paper forward. Maybe they get strength from the many copies of the founders photo, with an appeal for Gods strength, that hang in rooms throughout the Times building.
The paper has its challenges, considering 70 per cent of Yemens 20 million people live outside of cities, and more than half of the country cant read Arabic, let alone English. Take that into consideration, as the Times has just introduced an improved product with 30 per cent more pages, broader regional coverage, and a pledge to be a voice beyond its traditional borders.
Its no small undertaking. And its the type of thing that, as a Canadian, I cant help but cheer for, especially as I discover more about this proverbial underdog country. I see Yemens rough ride in the last decade something like that of a poor kid who studied hard to make a life for himself amidst a tough neighborhood, only to be suspended after sticking to his principles.
Whats interesting is that Yemen is still clinging to freedoms unique to this region, and is maintaining liberties that are still greater than in some parts of the world. This country, in fact, has pursued promising ideals against some very tough odds. Sometimes, amidst the gloomy news, its easy to forget that.
Yes, Yemen does have a way to go as it continues to find its way as a young democracy. Certainly in terms of freedom of the press, the government here needs to understand a free media, in the long run, will benefit the entire country, including officials who are in the publics trust.
Earn your respect
At the same time, the press here needs to earn its respect by reporting not only with accuracy, but with of spirit of fairness and constructiveness. Human nature being what it is, journalists can abuse their positions and I personally have little patience for those who spread fear and even hatred from atop their little platforms.
But whats good for the Yemeni to know is that the media in the West didnt attain its freedom overnight. It was a journey, and it wasnt always smooth. It was England, in fact, that developed the authoritarian press thats still used around the world now. For 200 years, patents, guilds and licenses controlled things with marvelous efficiency.
Libertarian thinkers helped bring Westerners out of that. But it wasnt until the 20th century before a press of social responsibility emerged in America, granting anyone the right to speak in the public square.
The fact is, virtually all human societies have shown an incredible capacity to develop systems of control. Thats why we need a free press as a prophetic conscience. Its our soul. It breaks down systems that are, in the end, harmful to everyone. The American poet Walt Whitman put it aptly when he said the newspaper is, in fact, our Bible of democracy.
We now have new mediums in a world that is shrinking. But our challenge remains the same: to protect and nurture and grow that liberating spirit of truth. Maybe sometime in this Third Millennium then, freedom will arrive in everyones home. And well have peace.
Thomas Froese, ([email protected]), is a Yemen Times editor.