As the number of prosecuted and blocked newspapers increase Is Yemeni Press Freedom At Stake? [Archives:1999/44/Law & Diplomacy]

November 1 1999

Jalal Al-Shar’abi
When the law is silent and chaos is taking over in dealing with issues of opinion, talks about the freedom of press as an ideal career is nonsense. Therefore, we realize why many newspapers are blocked and closed forcibly without any previous warning. Some are brought to courts, others are confiscated and so forth.
This is also done with a massive motive of aggression and harassment against journalists who were beaten up and sometimes imprisoned. More than 53 cases were filed until now against newspapers; few of them being won by the Ministry of Information, while most of them by the newspapers. The Yemen Times was one of these newspapers that the Ministry of Information had filed a case against some years ago. However, the newspaper won the case.
At present, the Al-Shoura newspaper was made to stop publication in accordance with a decision made by the Ministry of Information. Al-Haq newspaper’s staff are subject to investigations and fining. Another verdict was passed to fine Al-Umma newspaper. More than five newspapers were charged with defamation and vilification of some social dignitaries during the past three months.
Statistics reveal that there are many journalists kept in prisons, while about ten journalists have recently been arrested and then released. This, in fact, is not a congenial atmosphere and services to increase fears about freedom of the press. The latest news is that Al-Wahdawi has been taken to court last week for an article that it wrote (against national interest) and is facing the possibility of fine or closure.
In this detailed field inquiry, I am going to shed light on different vantage points of various personalities in the ruling power, opposition, civic community organizations and lawyers. The outcome of this general survey is the following:
– Dr. Mahmood Gamal Mohammed, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Information said “The cases filed against newspapers can be looked at form two sides; the first pertains to the law of the press which is considered to have made sufficient safeguard for journalists. Therefore, this law should be upheld and respected. Any action that is not in line with this law constitutes a grossly offensive violation that hinders the journalists’ career. According to my experience, I see that there are many actions that are not in coherence with the spirit of democracy. I have also asserted that we all should pull together to strengthen freedom of the press.
On the other hand, there are some newspapers that do not abide by the norms of the national sovereignty, religion, or national issues. Only then any lawful procedure is justified. Therefore, any action that does not go with this is an illegal act that negatively affects the freedom of the press, the society in general making it suffer a lot. It also reflects a very bad image of the regime which seems to strangle this sacred privilege in its infancy.
With regard to the attacks on journalists and their effects on freedom of the press, I believe that it is an outrageous violation of all constitutions of the world, all religions and human rights.”
– Journalist Gamal Amer, who was arrested in Ibb two months ago after publishing an article in one of the opposition newspapers pertaining to the boundaries between Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Yemen, said “Democracy in its real sense has not taken root in our country. A sure sign of this is the arrest and beating that journalists are exposed to. As a matter of fact, the ruling power has become very much intolerant to the journalists and their work. We wonder at high-ranking officials who state that they support democracy and freedom of the press; For example, there has not been any opposition newspaper that does not have a case in the court. This is a clear signal that real democracy has not been strengthened yet in our country. These personalities understand it as it serves their interests.
This means that the state of the inability of the ruling power has reflected itself in all strata of the society. Many were eagerly awaiting the outcome of cases filed against these influential people as it is the last solution that could be looked forward to. But, unfortunately, efforts to bias courts to take sides has increased an atmosphere of fear and anxiety among all who seriously doubt the fairness of the judiciary system.
Personally speaking, I have a strong conviction in the fairness of many judges. Some of them have already proved this for there are some newspapers that won some cases against the Ministry of Information. So what journalists should do is that they should take it upon themselves and struggle hard for their rights irrespective of aggressive actions of the those who want to put the clock back.”
– Abdulrahman Ahmad Abdo, Managing Editor of the Al-Shoura newspaper which has been stopped a month ago spoke about the procedures followed to seize the newspaper: “What is happening now for newspapers is something far from ordinary. Most of them are having cases in courts. The ruling power decision to stop and submit these journalists to law courts is a clear evidence of their inability to uproot corruption and total chaos that pervade the governmental institutions. Even the judiciary system is also corruptible for it is not impartial in dealing with cases filed.”
With regard to the seizure made over the Al-Shoura newspaper, he said “The Ministry of Information found some shortcomings in the law and used them illegally to take a decision to close the newspaper which had become a national voice against the corrupt in the ruling party. What we really would like to ask the Ministry of Information is whether it is not true that the Popular Forces Union is a legitimate party and that the Committee of Parties’ Affairs had attested it as such. Mr. Abdullah Ahmad Hizam, chairman of the committee stated last August in Al-Thawrah newspaper that it was very much a legal party. Moreover, the Ministry of Information did nothing when a fake newspaper was issued bearing the same name. The editorial staff of the fake newspaper were not even registered in the Ministry of Information.”- 
Mr. Sami Ghaleb, Editing Secretary of the opposition Alwahdawi newspaper believes that subjugating newspapers and journalists to the tangle of judicial procedures is a way to exercise some pressure on them so that they will be intimidated. He said that most of these newspapers standing trial were not served any lawful warrants and procedures. He also said that there should be a special court that deals with cases pertaining to the press. He justified this by saying “It is so because freedom of the press is something new in the Yemeni community and it is only natural that there may be some confusion in organizing its work. There are still some disputes with regard to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information to file cases against newspapers.
Moreover, there are many newspapers that are committed to trial without any lawful procedure or constitutional sanction. However, the point is that there should be an awareness about the importance of the press and its role. For example, things that are banned to be published in the law of the Print and Publication were accepted hands down by the journalists which proves their law abiding character. On the contrary, the ruling party itself does not abide by the laws. There are numerous instances when it has gone to the extreme. For example, it increased the banned publication in the executive standing of the Law of the Press which has been taken as a basis for curbing the liberty enjoyed by journalists and newspapers.
On the other hand, some judges are not always fair and decent. They may be liable to be very much influenced by those in position as the judiciary system is not totally independent. The fact that the chairman of the Executive Power has the same Judicial Power is a case in point. He is also the same person who appoints members of the Supreme Court and is the one who chairs the Supreme Judiciary Council.
Our new experience in the field of press is very distinct in the context of some cases filed in courts. One can easily observe that there are some judges who pass verdicts without being fully aware of the principles of freedom of the press and its status in the political and constitutional framework. Therefore, we find strong contradictions between verdicts passed in the preliminary as well as appeals courts.”
– Mr. Abbas Al-Dailami, Secretary-general of the radio programs in Sana’a asserted that referral to courts in issues that pose controversy is a positive thing. The existence of laws is also a necessary thing that ensures discipline. As he said: “There is no democracy without freedom of the Press and as everything is based on discipline and order, it does not harm to have these laws which contribute a lot to organize works. However, they should not be misconstrued. There are around 53 cases filed in courts either by the Ministry of Information or journalists and I see this as a positive thing meaning that if there are disputes and controversy court should be the supreme arbiter that settle these rather than people taking laws into their hands. Besides, frequent referral to the law strengthens the democratic forces and consolidates freedom of the press.”
– Mr. Abdullah Al-Khawlani, assistant teacher in the National Institute for Administrative Sciences sees that any civilized country respects freedom of the press and human rights; The Press in such countries is considered to be the fourth power, not any less important than the other three wings of the government. The Press is the instrumental of surveillance over the executive, legislative powers and even the judiciary one. He added: “The Press can not effectively carry out its role in scrutinizing whatever is perpetrated by the ruling power unless it enjoys all its privileges to have access to information and publish them to the public, not of course running the rise of tarnishing the country’s image.
When newspapers started meticulously scanning all actions of the regime, the regime was infuriated. The regime was not used to be criticized. It has never been asked why it violated the provisions of the law, squandering the public revenue and so forth. It has been accustomed to the official media that works as a sycophant for the regime and never asks why. The media started uncovering the deeply rotten actions of the ruling power to the public. The ruling power would obviously consider such newspapers as working against the law and understandably started to drag these newspapers to courts.
There are some cases in courts which are disposed of according to the extent of tension between the ruling power and these newspapers. All this happens because of a corrupt judiciary system. As a matter of fact, the role of the Ministry of Information can be redefined as follows: the first and the foremost is that it legitimizes the rotten actions of the regime. The second is that it keeps track of the trend of the newspapers and exercises pressure to threaten and intimidate them so that they will be throttled and can not expose things to the people.”
The devil should, of course, be given its due. It is fair to give the Ministry of Information a chance to explain itself after all that massive campaign of journalists, different organizations, newspapers to suspend this ministry. The Yemen Times met
– Mr. Mohammed Radman Al-Zarkah, Deputy of the Minister of Information who had the following to say: “We are very much committed to freedom of the press and we have one reference that sorts disputes out. We have no evil intentions against any newspaper and what we depend upon is the Law of the Press. However, there are some newspapers that put many of the national principles to grave danger and what we do is that we refer such newspapers to courts. In other words, there is no scope for any aggressive action against any newspaper and it is the role of the hon’ble court to pass a verdict for or against us. To make this more clear, I still remember one case filed against the Yemen Times which was won by the Yemen Times.
With regard to the seizure of the Al-Shoura newspaper, it is because the party was not dully registered in the Parties Law; Besides there are so many problems as well as loopholes within this party. So it is rational that we refer to the law that solves such problems out. It is the court, and not the Ministry of Information, that will pass its verdict.” Regarding the demand for elimination of the Ministry of Information, he said “What I really want to ask is: will elimination of the Ministry of Information solve the problems of the Press? and Won’t there be some other Ministry that would apply the law?
Those who ask today to eliminate the Ministry of Information, will ask in the future to eliminate the judiciary system itself. To make a long story short, I say that democracy will never prosper unless both the ruling power and the opposition are there.”With regard to the journalists’ harassment, he said “The Ministry of Information is not the prosecution to investigate when a journalist is beaten up in streets or in any other place. I myself have been exposed to such incidents while I was working in the Thawrah Organization. The Ministry then did not take any measures except issuing a report condemning the attack.”