In reaction to Journalists demands’ of more freedomsGovernment: A new press code for Journalists [Archives:2007/1058/Front Page]

June 11 2007

By: Yemen Times staff
The state vs. journalists match has reached a higher level, with the Ministry of Information taking the ball in its court and waving a red card signaling a new press code. As a reaction, journalists and press freedom advocates established “Freedom Square” in front of the Cabinet building as a place not only to congregate, but also to protest and pray.

SANA'A, June 10 – Yemen's Ministry of Information began discussing a new press code last week, affirming that the new law “accommodates various technical and information developments and modern communications technology, as well as opens the door to investment in the information and communication field in general.”

According to the ministry, the new law will be formulated with all concerned parties, particularly the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, in order to ensure the best outcome.

Although the law is intended to resolve current debates about mobile phone messages and electronic press web sites by enacting clear and specific legislation, Yemeni journalists consider it just another attempt to control freedom of press.

The Information Ministry says the new press law will outline the rights, duties and obligations of those dealing with collecting and disseminating information. It also will ban “any material intended to harm national stability, publish personal information or expose state secrets.”

At the same time, the Communications Ministry, the authority responsible for regulating internet facilities and mobile services, is looking to draft a new law to legislate the use of communication technologies. This step comes in line with the latest debate on the legal status of SMS news services provided through mobile telecommunications and news web sites, which have been blocked off and on according to the tides of liberty in Yemen.

When protest doesn't work, it's time to pray

The new press code “adds insult to injury” as demonstrators commented while holding a prayer gathering Friday in what's being called “Freedom Square” in front of the Cabinet building. Attorney Khalid Al-Anisi, executive director of the National Organization to Defend Human Rights and Freedoms, also known as HOOD, proposed the idea of praying in the square.

He explained that their prayer in Freedom Square is a sign of protest similar to the regular Tuesday sit-ins. Consequently, protestors have committed to continuing the Tuesday sit-in ritual and praying every Friday in the square until their demands are met.

Following the prayer ceremony, they reiterated their demands, which are: to allow individuals, political parties and organizations to establish private media, including newspapers, radio stations and television channels. They further condemn the blocking of SMS services and news web sites.

Prominent journalist Tawakul Karman, director of Women Journalists Without Chains and one of the key movers of the current journalist protest movement, called on all mosque preachers to make last Friday, June 8, “Freedom Friday” and defend constitutional freedoms and human rights, another slogan adopted by the enthusiastic activists in an attempt to involve religiously-oriented Yemenis in their plight. Both Al-Anisi and Karman are affiliates Islah Party.

As in Islamic Friday prayers, the ceremony began with a speech by an Imam, who was none other than Member of Parliament Fouad Dahaba of the Islah bloc and a member of Parliament's human rights committee.

Dahaba called on Prime Minister Ali Mujawar (whose office overlooks the front yard of the Cabinet building, the chosen location for Freedom Square) to resign his post. “We say to the prime minister, whom we believe has a living conscience, that if you find yourself unable to provide for the betterment of your people, then it's best you resign.”

Mocking Yemen's weak infrastructure, Dahaba said that although the nation miraculously was saved from the damaging consequences of cyclone Gonu, it is drowning in a flood of corruption. Furthermore, if a Yemeni escapes death by a bullet in Sa'ada, there's a good chance he'll die in a shabby gutter somewhere else, referring to last month's incident wherein a car sank in a sinkhole in Sana'a and killed a woman.

Parliament joins in

Dahaba isn't the only MP who has been active in defending press freedom. The latest news out of Parliament reveals that more than 17 MPs, mostly from the opposition bloc, demand creating an investigative committee on the reasons and legal justification for blocking and news web sites, as well as blocking Nass Press and Without Chains SMS news services.

On demands from the journalists demonstrating outside his office premises, Mujawar met with a delegation of the protestors and instructed the Communications Ministry to unblock the two web sites. The agreement from last week was to allow the web sites to operate until a law is made to solve the problem, which the Information Ministry began drafting last week.

Nasserite Unionist Party Secretary-General Sultan Al-Atwani demanded Yemen's information minister explain the reason for blocking opposition news web sites and SMS services, as well as why Yemeni television channels don't cover the activities of opposition political parties.

It is uncertain when the new press code will be proposed and to what extent various media stakeholders will have a say in it. However, Parliament's opposition bloc seems more adamant this time around to take a firm stand to defend their parties' interests.

While press freedom advocates alternately protest and pray weekly, the issue of freedoms in Yemen is being brought to the attention of international human rights organizations. Many press freedom watchdogs such as Article 19, which currently is working with Yemeni organizations to draft a new press code, are keeping track of the events and awaiting what will evolve from this latest round.