International advice to develop press law [Archives:2005/860/Front Page]

July 18 2005

Mohammed Al-Qadhi
Yemeni journalists discussed with some international media legislation experts the possibilities of setting up a more liberal press freedom law. In a workshop titled “Developing Media Legislation in Yemen” organized Wednesday July 13 by the Joint Yemeni Media Development Program and the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate(YJS) in cooperation with the German and US embassies in Yemen, the Yemen Minister of Justice Dr. Adnan al-Jifry said that the draft press law put forward by Ministry of Information last May was hasty. Reliable sources at the Justice Ministry told Yemen Times the information ministry's draft bill has been neglected and that there will be just amendments on the press and publication law No. 25 for 1990. Al-Jifry said after amendments which include a chapter on the YJS are incorporated, the law will go to the Consultative Council, which is an appointed institution by the president, for further debate and discussions.

Journalists in Yemen have already rejected the new draft of the press and publications law saying it is even more restrictive than the existing bill.

During the workshop which was attended by experts from the US and Article 19, al-Jifry who is the head of the government committee conducting the amendments on the law regretted that the YJS was part of the committee, saying that” journalists should be consulted as they are the beneficiaries of the law and the people concerned with the development of their profession.”

The situation had looked set to improve when Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, specifically demanded the removal of a clause allowing the imprisonment of journalists under certain circumstances, in June 2004.

Although in the new draft, jail sentences have been removed, journalists object to clauses forbidding them from being able to 'criticize the head of the state' or 'publishing or exchanging anything that directly and personally prejudices monarchs and heads of brotherly and friendly states.'

The 1990 law bars criticism of the president and lists a wide range of vaguely worded offences that can land a journalist in court and prison, according to international media watchdog organizations.

“We believe the media in Yemen is at cross roads. A number of changes have been achieved during the last few years in Yemen. Unfortunately, the new draft law is setback rather than a continuation of the positive trend as there are things in the law that do not comply with the international standards,” Daniel Simsons from Article 19 said. “We hope that we make a written overview of the situation and how can the law meet the international standards. We will work on this during the coming few weeks and present it to the Yemeni stakeholders,” he added.

During the meetings the three international experts had with Yemeni officials, stakeholders and human rights activities, they raised concerns over the draft press law and penalties journalists could face under the country's Penal Code, Archive law, Criminal Procedures code and civil law as the penalty mounts to the death sentence in the Penal Code. The death sentence can in theory be applied in cases where information related to national security or state secrets are published.

“Imprisonment remains in the Criminal law. Should not it be changed if the abolishment of the imprisonment penalty becomes a reality,” said David McCraw from the New York Times Company.

Concerns over a number of issues like the vagueness and open-endedness of some provisions in the law, big authority given to the ministry of information, prior censorship on printing press and others were raised during the event that saw heated open debates by a host for journalists. Some of them went to call for abolishing the ministry of information, the press law and the press prosecution, demanding liberalization of broadcast media.

The Information Ministry's draft law is full of other shortcomings that constitute a major hindrance for the press to operate freely, granting more authority to the information ministry, journalists claim. For example, to establish a newspaper/magazine, one has to get a license from the Ministry of Information

Although the current law No. 25 of 1990 has imposed huge financial burdens involved in starting a paper, the Minister of Information's Decree No. 9 for 1998 states that 'for establishing a paper or a magazine, the publisher's capital should amount to YR 2 million for a daily newspaper, YR 700,000 for a Weekly paper, YR 1.2 million for a Weekly magazine and a Periodical, YR 100,000 for an Advertisement Bulletin.'Yet, the new draft law has stipulated that the publisher should have a deposit in a Yemeni bank no less than YR 5 million for an individual and no less than YR 15 million. “Such kind of conditions make it impossible for anybody to start a print media as this draft law puts a condition of 5 years experience for anybody interested in opening a print media. As journalists are poor enough to have such a mount of money and businessmen do not have experience in media, no one will be able to run a newspaper or magazine” Nabeel al-Muhamadi, the YJS legal consultant said.

The YJS said that it would present their ideas and remarks on the press law as well as the other laws. “The press law is overlapping with other laws. We will present a matrix of amendments of these laws,” Hafiz al-Bukari, YJS Secretary-General said. He urged the government not to be hasty in presenting the amendments to the cabinet before remarks from the journalists are assimilated.