Being a journalist in Yemen [Archives:2006/949/Opinion]

May 25 2006

Adel Al-Haddad
The Press plays a vital role in the development and enhancement of a human being's freedoms of expression. One of the greatest professions in life, it is a grandstand for showcasing social problems. The Press is the mouthpiece from where oppressed people can have their demands heard. Journalism is like the watchdog that can act as adversary or friend of the government. It is then, rightly, called the Fourth Estate of the regime. As the watchdog of the government its main task is to keep tabs on the government's performance.

A journalist is not just a reporter and writer, but also a holder of the sublime message from humanity. The journalist does his work without fear or consideration of any kind of the troubles and the tragedies he might face. He believes his mission is not only to write and report, but to defend the cases he believes in. The famous American journalist, Joseph Pulitzer said that the journalist “peers through fog and storm to give warning of dangers ahead”. The journalist is not thinking of his wages or the profit of the newspaper's owners. He is there to watch over the safety and welfare of the people who trust him.

The Press' role in Yemen, on the other hand, is quite different from the “Fourth branch of the government”. Official laws do not give Yemeni press all its rights to convey information freely on issues of public interest. The journalist is especially restricted in commenting on wrongful procedures enacted by the government and its influential figures.

In Yemen, being a journalist means facing many challenges and difficulties while on its mission to search for truthful information. Sometimes the journalist puts his life on the line when he criticizes corrupt, high ranking government officials; when he reports about sensitive political issues; or exposes “secret or hot” events. Their journalistic protection and their rights to freedom of speech are not totally approved by the State. Journalist will oftentimes find a variety of problems and violations imposed on them. They will find themselves imprisoned, threatened, and barred from professional practice with tactics such as facing criminal charges. These lawsuits result from a direct intervention of the government via the Press and Publication Prosecution Department.

This only aims at intensifying the already tense relationship between the State and the Press. When journalists try to criticize the government's policies, the government often doesn't like what is said and tries to influence the journalist as well as trying to control what the newspapers publish. The journalists, of course, will try to resist the pressure and dictates of the State. There ensues the start of a conflict between the State and the newspapers for the sake of Freedom of Press.

Ex-Prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru said “I have no doubt that even if the government dislikes the liberties taken by the press and considers them dangerous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the press.”

Current official laws, in Yemen on the other hand, are oppressive and violate the Yemeni press' right to criticize the government. Prime Minister Abdulkader Bajamal told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that “the government's censorship on the press was directly attributable to violations of the law by journalists.” Speaking of Yemeni journalists he said they “are working outside the law. They get into our bedrooms.”

The list of newspapers and their journalists suspended by the government, in recent times is growing. Their licenses have been revoked for a variety of reasons. Among those “hit” are Al-Ray A'am newspaper, Yemen Observer English language newspaper, the Nasserite opposition party's Al-Wahdawi newspaper, Al-Hurya newspaper, and Al-Usbou newspaper.

In recent months journalists have been particularly targeted: Al-Thawri Editor-in-Chief, Khalid Salam was accused of a scorn case and fined YR 50,000. His reporter Qaed Al-Tairi was kidnapped outside Sana'a and then beaten severely by unknown assailants. Akhbar Al-Yoom's Editor-in-Chief, Ibrahim Mugahed was assaulted with sticks and iron rods, again: anonymous individuals. In addition, Al-Nahar's managing editor, Haji Al-Jihafi stands trial because he wrote an article criticizing Sheikh Mohammed Mansour and the violations he committed against his subjects. Al-Jihafi was wounded when he opened a booby-trapped envelope that exploded in his face as he tried to open it. He had already written the article.

The Deteriorating Standards of Journalism

So far, Yemeni press has not experienced international circulation nor is its quality up to international standards. The government's continued censorship on freedoms of expression and a lack of specialized newspapers and journalists are some of the main reasons for a deteriorating Yemeni press. Some journalists can not even be considered professionals; as they hail from political backgrounds or they pretend to be intellectuals. Many work in the media for fame, money, and to be mouthpieces for their political parties. These types of journalists are viruses eating on media ethics. They exploit their professional position for the sake of money and personal interests by some form or fashion. For them personal interests are of primary importance above and beyond any moral principles and press ethics.

Journalistic functions are turned upside down when financial interests and tooting one's own political ideology serve as the main capacities of said journalists. In spite of the Press' rightful purpose to be at the service of the people, financial interests interfere in journalistic work when those who run the newspapers do so as businessmen and not as journalists. It becomes an ordeal for outspoken journalists who are forced to think in terms of business parameters contrary to the greater aim of journalism which is to search for the truth and for viable information.

The journalist is “not a businessman or a publisher or even a proprietor”, Pulitzer said.

A journalist is a man of letters who sacrifices himself for the sake of the honest word and is the voice of the voiceless. He is the bridge between the ruler and the people ruled. Some business or politically oriented newspapers, however, exploit the journalist in order to gain a profit. The business oriented newspaper exploits even the very journalists they hire so that these can serve as the mouthpiece for the interests of the owner and for the party system they belong to. Owners will refuse to publish what is not in their favor, putting party needs before public interest. A journalist then finds that their job is constantly on the line. And with a rising unemployment rate of more than 35%, the journalist lives in fear of becoming another statistic. Yemeni laws doesn't protect them, so to comment frankly against the government puts the journalist at greater risk of being targeted by security and state run newspapers.

Moreover, the journalist faces internal conflicts between his ethics, as a professional, and the interests of the newspaper that hires him and its political/governmental interests. It becomes hazardous to their professional life this on going conflict, so they chose to safeguard their living and their post instead of safeguarding truthful information. The current situation reflects and rings true of Nehru's words: “A poor man or a man with inadequate means, whether he is good or bad, will not have much of opportunity to express himself except in a very limited and small way. He may be good, he may be brilliant but the person who gets the opportunity nowadays is the person with means; he can run newspapers, buy them or stop them, employ people whom he likes and dismisses people whom he dislikes.”

The situation is such that Yemen's record violence against journalists is absolutely dangerous and has reached a critical level. The government does not pay real attention to the press as a means to improve its quality, its standards and its very journalists. There is serious debate over the Press Law recently drafted in Parliament. This law would bestow the right of the government to control the press' freedom and especially it would have the right to imprison the countries journalists. All this despite how vital freedom of press is to promoting a person's right to know and be informed about what is happening around them. This freedom is a principle feature of democracy and reflects the balance of the country and the freedom of its citizens.

The very lack of this principle factor is what has led the Millennium Challenge Corp to suspend Yemen from its program. The same can be said of Freedom House's Survey of Freedom in the World -2005; where it rates Yemen as “Not Free” in its press nor in its ranking on freedom of speech. In all cases, the press remains the “great mission” among all professions. The Yemeni journalist, however, faces a lot more hardship and violence against them. Even by law, their lives are not protected and their freedom of expression is not ensured.

In Yemen, while knowing and experiencing all of these plights and difficulties, the journalists continue their struggle for their rightful purpose. They believe their mission is greater than any danger they may encounter. They keep it up as long as the sun rises every morning.

Adel Al-Haddad is a Yemeni journalist interested in Development Journalism.