Female Editor-in-Chief Nadia Al-Saqqaf about the Yemen TimesA newspaper that wants to educate Yemen [Archives:2006/994/Reportage]

October 30 2006

The Yemeni Nadia al-Saqqaf is Editor-in-Chief and a woman. This makes her a rare exception in the Arab world. Although repression in Yemen is increasing, she remains optimistic.

Her father died in 1999 in a car accident. Since her brother wanted to continue his studies, Nadia al-Saqqaf was left to run the family business. She became one of the few female editors-in-chief in the Arab

world, publishing the bi-weekly Yemen Times, an independent English-language newspaper in the capital Sana'a. “A newspaper with a mission,” says al-Saqqaf (29) “accurate and constructive”:

a newspaper that is not only criticizing the government, but also furnishes solutions. “My father founded the Yemen Times to raise Yemen into becoming a good world citizen.”

In June 2006, Al-Saqqaf was in The Hague, the Netherlands by invitation of Free Voice to attend the launch of a program for journalists in the Middle East and North Africa: Investing in the Future. According to Al-Saqqaf it is not possible to reform societies in a short period of time. “But we can ensure that journalists work more professionally.”

Free Media award

In May 2006, the Yemen Times was awarded the Free Media Award by the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna. According to the jury, the newspaper is functioning in a part of the world where governments prohibit independent media that offer a platform for the opposition. In doing so, a climate of fear and self-censorship is created. Nonetheless, the Yemen Times, says IPI, succeeds to report “accurate and timely about the developments in Yemen”.

The Yemen Times, says al-Saqqaf, “is patriotic when it comes to issues concerning the promotion of tourism and investments, the development of the country.” At the same time, the newspaper does not back away from issues like corruption amongst the public authorities, “but in a constructive way”.

As an example al-Saqqaf mentions the upcoming presidential elections. “Last year the president [Ali Abdullah Saleh] said he would not participate.

We believe this decision to be wise one given the fact that the president has been at the political helm for 28 years; in a lead article we said it was time for a breath of fresh air. Other newspapers, however, stated that the country would go to ruins if the president left. The opposition adopted an aggressive tone: go to hell, president, if you don't go yourself we will force you to.”

Far-reaching influence

The Yemen Times has a circulation of 9,000. This seems low, but al-Saqaff points out that sixty per cent, out of a total of twenty million Yemenis, is illiterate and seventy per cent of the population lives in rural areas where it is difficult to “access practically anything”. As such, the newspaper has a farreaching influence, since its readership includes policymakers, activists and potential activists, that is to say students. Within a couple of years al-Saqqaf aims to publish a daily newspaper, next to an additional monthly or weekly issue, with enough room for investigative journalism. Last year, al-Saqqaf complained that the Yemeni press was curbed by the government. “The last couple of years, especially since 9/11 in the United States, the situation has worsened”, she said. Now, however, she is much more optimistic.

This more cheerful tone is not based on Yemeni authorities granting more freedom to journalists. On the contrary, newspapers are forbidden, journalists are arrested and imprisoned and often subject to violence. Al-Saqqaf's hopes are based on her belief that the government is simply no longer capable of controlling the stream of information. Important political discussions are being held also in Yemen via weblogs, she says. Foremost, she says, the people are not satisfied; they demand a higher standard of living from the government. And they demands the media to cover it.” The government is becoming hysterical, as journalists are doing their job, says al-Saqqaf. “It realises that it no longer can hide its mistakes.”

Laborious tolerance

As a female editor-inchief, al-Saqqaf has an extraordinary position in the Arab world. With Arab newspapers in Yemen it is not possible yet to have a woman in charge, she admits, as the atmosphere in the country is still fairly conservative. In general, individual women in Yemen are developing at a faster pace than the conservative society they live in. “The tolerance showing signs of fatigue.” She herself is not married to a Yemeni, but to a Jordanian, who, at her request, works for the newspaper. They have a baby daughter, which her husband is taking care of while al-Saqqaf is in The Hague. “A Yemeni husband would not have been such a great support.” “This laborious tolerance is”, underlines al-Saqqaf, “not the result of islamisation”. She herself wears the veil, but “the veil is not all-important”, and she will never force her seven female employees to wear it. “In Islam, the public has no right to judge others or to handle matters on those grounds”, she says. “Even in the case of a murder I have no right to execute the murderer.” But “the difficulty is that some people in my country take the right into their own hands.” At the same time, her Danish trainee did not find it any problem while covering a protest against the Danish cartoons on the prophet Muhammad earlier this year in Yemen.

Al-Saqqaf is optimistic: “It is impossible to have no progress.” And what about the series of gloomy Arab Human Development Reports over the past few years, that mention a stiffening attitude in the Arab world regarding several areas? “The fact that these reports, written and made by Arab experts, were published, is already an improvement.”

This article was published in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad on June 21, 2006. Authors are Carolien Roelants and Froukje Santing. Translation: Nicolien Zuijdgeest