E-press and freedom of expression [Archives:2006/970/Reportage]

August 7 2006

By: Mohammed Al-Jabri
Below is an analytic study on the role of e-press in supporting freedom of expression prepared by Abdul-Rahman Al-Shami, liaison professor in Hodeidah University's Radio and Television Department.

Yemeni electronic press enjoys much greater freedom than print press and launching such media doesn't involve the considerable resources, as with conventional press. A few computers or maybe even just one computer and a low-priced web site will do the trick, according to the Hodeidah University study.

The study tries to examine the qualitative addition offered by Yemeni e-press in terms of boosting freedom of expression, enhancing political involvement and broadcasting their limits among Yemenis both in Yemen and abroad. This examination was achieved by observing and analyzing the stances adopted by e-press toward various subjects over one month.

E-press dates back to May 1992, when Chicago online debuted on the America Online web site as the world's first online newspaper. The first online Arab newspapers were the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in Sept. 1995, followed by Al-Hayat in June 1996.

However, in Yemen, the internet was introduced in 1996, but took only two months for the first online newspaper to exist. The number of online newspapers since has increased due to technological advancement, especially between 2000 and 2004.

According to the study, 26 September was the first newspaper to go online in Nov. 1996, followed a few years later by several other newspapers appearing either as exact copies of their printed versions in portable document format (PDF) or as electronic newspapers. According to the study, there are now more than six web sites updated on a daily basis and run by political parties, newspapers or independent bodies. Mainly concerned with news and commentaries, they also cover some social topics.

Al-Taghyear net was introduced Jan. 13, 2004. Though considered an independent and personal web site, Al-Taghyear net tackles issues related to democracy, human rights and civil society, but from a news point of view.

Al-Sahwa net, the first opposition party news web site, launched in 2002. Likewise, the General People's Congress, the ruling party, launched a news web site known as Al-Motamar net the following April. “It was the first Yemeni online newspaper that wasn't an extension of a published newspaper, as was the case with other similar web sites then,” the study noted.

Yemeni e-press has witnessed a flood of online news web sites, some of which are the independent Newsyemen.net (2005), Al-Wahdawi net (issued by the Nasserite Unionist Popular Organization) and Al-Shoura net run by the Yemeni Union of Popular Forces.

According to the study, Nabanews net is the latest news web site, established last December.

Themes tackled

The study states that political subjects are the main topics, comprising 91 percent of content, which is evident in the nature of opinion and editorial columns. It's only normal that these web sites focus mainly on Yemen more than other regions, focusing on the local arena by 80.7 percent, followed by issues in the surrounding Arab world by 13.7 percent. The remaining world, including the United States, Africa and Islamic nations, made up only 1.5 to 2 percent.

Topics typically are viewed as criticism or explanation, the study added, with criticism estimated at 63.9 percent and explanation at 34.7 percent. Criticism dominated the nature of most articles, especially due to accusations exchanged between official and opposition media.

Freedom of expression and obstacles

The study made clear that e-press has “opened the door for all views, regardless of how daring they are or how powerful are the indications and contents of their terms and expressions.” Criticizing the ruling party was one of the most prominent signs reflecting the new style of daring opposition.

As opposition parties now are able to criticize the government, official e-press must defend itself. In the face of fierce attacks on the current state and regime, official response was forceful, explaining their own stance and responding aggressively to opposition. So, they ran headlines viewing the foundation of the General People's Congress as ” a historical necessity for building the nation.” They also point out their party's many good traits, while portraying opposition parties negatively.

The study listed numerous obstacles facing Yemen's e-press:

1- Inability to prove itself an independent entity, both practically and legally.

2- Financial difficulties hindering technical and editorial development. Financial resources are hard to obtain, especially those web sites unable to obtain advertisements.

3- Technical problems blocking the web site and sometimes lasting for hours.

4- Shortage of personnel who can contribute to this type of journalism.

5- Difficulty in contacting information sources, whether official, security or unofficial.

6- The vague nature of e-newspapers needing many articles to fill their pages.

7- Lack of respect for copyrights and literary rights.

E-press and readership

As indicated by the study, what distinguishes e-press from conventional press is that the former has the advantage of interacting with readers via the content or contacting those in charge of the web site and even interaction among readers themselves. However, except for a very few news web sites, Yemeni e-press hasn't shown an interest in making such features accessible.

The study also finds that reader's forums represent the largest portion of e-press interaction, comprising 55 percent, followed by reader's comments at 31.2 percent and live conversations trailing at 13.8 percent.

This order could be explained by Arab internet users' tendency to participate in forums because they always are available any time users enter the news web site, wherein they can express their opinion and comment on subjects published. According to the study, most of the public tend to agree with subjects and issues on news web sites, with readers giving articles a 37 percent approval rating.

Other interactions include: expressing opinion about an article, using abusive language, asking the conversation guest directly and vehemently disagreeing with or reprimanding the writer or disagreeing with the writer on the way he or she approached the subject. This is an indication of the credibility of e-press, which reflects reader interaction, even if involving offensive language.