Ali Mohammed Al-Olofy: “Yemen’s margin of press freedom has been steadily shrinking.” [Archives:1999/04/Interview]

January 25 1999

The independent weekly “AL RAI AL AAM’ was recently suspended by the government on charges of undermining relations with sisterly/friendly countries. The newspaper is highly controversial, to say the least.
It presents itself as a beacon of the public interest, and thus has been openly critical of many influential individuals. However, many have accused it of tactics that are close to blackmail, or at least inappropriate.
The chief editor of the newspaper does not refute those charges. He in fact openly states that most businessmen and government officials only understand such language.
More importantly, however, the newspaper has defended what it sees as Yemen’s interests against the encroachment of neighboring Saudi Arabia. It accuses the authorities of appeasement leading to more and more concessions.
Mohammed Bin Sallam of Yemen Times met with the paper’s proprietor and chief editor, Ali Mohammed Al Olofy, 59. Ali has been practising journalism for ages. He started before the 26th September Revolution as he used to write for a paper called ‘SABA’. After the revolution, he worked with the government before resigning to start his newspaper AL RAI AL AAM on February 25, 1973.
Q: Your paper was recently suspended by the concerned authority. What is the problem in your opinion, and what is the charge?
A: On 24/12/98 I was summoned to the capital’s attorney of appeals for investigation, with no reason given. On that same day telephone instructions were directed to ‘AL THAWRA’ daily printing press not to print our paper. Then it was suspended from circulation after it was printed at ‘Al Mufadal’ printing house. Also the Saudi newspaper ‘Okaz’ published a report attacking Yemen and its President on that day.
I was referred to court later that day as well, so I went to the public attorney to ask about the charges which he said he did not know anything about.
In court, I was surprised that no charges were levelled against me in writing but a higher party telephoned the court asking it to charge me with undermining relations with Saudi Arabia. In fact, our relations with Riyadh have been tense since 1934 and that tension escalated following the September Revolution and culminated after the reunification of Yemen in 1990. The differences deepened in 1994 when Saudi Arabia financed the separatists and acts of sabotage in Yemen in addition to the kidnapping of foreigners. Riyadh is the perpetrator of all problems in Yemen. When were those relations normal anyway?
The fact is that the Premier, some of the President’s aids, some Ministers, and a number of Governors, the corrupt elements, are not satisfied with AL RAI AL AAM because it fights corruption. They found that charge as an opportunity to suspend the newspaper and only one day after those events, which surprisingly took place in only 24 hours, there was a “serious and eye-catching” official circulation to all Ministries and Government Institutions not to publish advertisements in AL RAI AL AAM nor to subscribe to it. Another official circular demanded all printing houses not to print the newspaper and ordered all libraries not to sell it. All those steps prove the absence of democracy and freedom of the press in the country.
Imagine that they had formed a special court for us in Ramadhan, which is an official holiday for courts in Yemen, and their 16 lawyers came to defend us.
Q: How many times did your newspaper face cases in courts?
A: I remember about eight cases, but in the end we won because the charges were trivial and could not stand in a court of justice. In the last such problem, we faced four charges in one case.
Q: How many times was your paper found guilty?
A: The paper was indicted twice after the 1993 general elections in view of our criticism towards their results and performance of a certain party and once in the late seventies and early eighties when we criticized negative phenomena in Al Thawra hospital.
Q: What do you think about freedom of the press in Yemen at present, particularly in view of political observers’ opinion that democracy in the country is diminishing?
A: There is no freedom of the press in Yemen and whoever says so is a liar. There is a chaotic situation here. The ruling People’s General Conference had issued papers along with other parties only to spread confusion in the press arena. A strong proof here is that any official can ban the publication of any paper through a telephone contact and not a court order as stipulated in the constitution.
Furthermore, there is not even a marginal democracy that we can describe as diminishing. For example, the parliamentary elections were not clean and the parties in our country, ruling or opposing, do not have a sound status, and are all financed by certain elements which steer their policies. Frankly, democracy in our country is a facade only meant to beautify the regime while people outside Yemen are deceived into believing that there is democracy in the country.
Q: What is your paper’s political trend, and did it change following the reunification of the country?
A: AL RAI AL AAM did not change its trend ever since its establishment in 1973. It pursues a nationalistic path and daringly opposes and criticizes corruption and negative practices regardless of penalties or harrassment. It is not true that the paper had changed its policies after the reunification, for it was a unionist paper even before 1990.
Q: What is the role of the press attorney? Does it pursue a sound path, and what are its shortcomings?
A: The press attorney is similar to a police station where anybody can complain about any journalist. That attorney then summons the concerned journalist or chief editor without scrutinizing the complaint.
Q: What is the legal aspect in your case?
A: There is no legal aspect in the case. Usually if such a problem occurs, the President telephones to ask about it and either we convince him or he convinces us and the problem is over. However, this good habit no longer exists and I do not know if this is because of him or those surrounding him. In my opinion, it is because of those close aides for they are enemies to freedom of the press.
Q: What did the journalists syndicate do in your case?
A: The syndicate issued a statement backing our case but we wished for a stronger position. We hoped that the syndicate would ask the President about such violations.
Q: What are the problems of that syndicate and what are the solutions to them in your opinion?
A: The syndicate should adopt the cases filed against journalists and journalism. However, the syndicate, following 1992, was a theatre for partisan struggle between the then two ruling parties. The managing board’s legitimacy is no longer valid since the general conference should have convened two years ago to elect a new, legitimate board but that did not happen. The problem is that those who currently tackle the syndicate issues are not members of it and the members are merely spectators.
The regime does not wish to have a syndicate in the first place, so it is satisfied with the current situation. We want the general conference to be held with the financial support of the member journalists themselves and not the government which paid 10 million rials for that conference scheduled for coming February 21st. How on earth would you expect that syndicate to perform freely in the future when it was financed by the government?
Q: Is there anything else you wish to add?
A: I hope that a marginal democracy would exist in Yemen in the first place before we agree whether to expand it.
I also hope for the presence of a real journalists’ syndicate. For example, in Egypt the journalists’ syndicate there foiled a law passed by the government which harmed freedom of the press. But regretfully, here we do not have a legitimate syndicate.