Interview [Archives:1999/02/Interview]

January 11 1999
Mahboub Ali. Mahboub : “There is no press freedom without democracy, and there is never democracy without freedom of the press”
There has been visible backsliding in press freedom in Yemen. That is clear from the falling level of official tolerance to differences in opinion. That problem is further complicated by the failure of the journalists’ syndicate to take an active role in protecting independent and opposition journalists. 
One of the individuals who tries to address this problem is Mr. Mahboub Ali. Mahboub is at once the Manager Arab Region’s Center of the International Organization of Journalists (IOJ) and Member of the Executive Board of the outgoing Yemeni Journalists Syndicate. 
Mahboub, 45, holds a university degree in journalism from Ukraine. He has a long experience in journalism, and held leading positions with various newspapers such as 14th October, Al-Thawri. He is a regular columnist in many local and regional newspapers. 
Dr. Salah Haddash, Managing Editor of Yemen interviewed Mr. Mahboub Ali and filed the following excerpts. 
Q: Could you give us a brief background on the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate? 
A: The YJS was founded in the seventies. After the re-unification of the nation in 1990, efforts were exerted to establish a unified syndicate, but to no avail. 
The YJS was established in Sanaa in April, 1976. Two months later, a similar body was created in Aden. The two organizations maintained relations and some degree of coordination. 
Visits were exchanged between representatives of the two syndicates. They could not, however, break the barriers created by the politicians in both Yemeni states at that time. This contrasts markedly with the Union of Yemeni Writers which managed to work with one entity representing Yemenis in the north and the south since the early seventies. 
After reunification of Yemen in May, 1990. The first unification conference for both syndicates was held in June, 1990, in which a unified YJS was declared. 
Q: Why was there no second conference, despite the stipulations of the bylaws? 
A: It is true that a long period has passed since the first general conference. This makes the present bodies of the YJS unconstitutional as the time-mandate of the elected persons have expired. However, despite all circumstances, the syndicate was able, with the support of all journalists regardless of their ideological affiliation, to maintain unity of the YJS. 
Of course, the issue of a paralyzed syndicate was debated feverishly in different meetings, including meetings of the YJS’s central council which is its highest authority. 
The meetings which took place over the last few days resulted in a decision to hold the second general conference on February 21st, 1999. In my opinion, the general conference is the goal sought by all in order to find appropriate solutions to the problems and difficulties confronting the syndicate. 
Q: What are these difficulties? 
A: There are people who participated in elections in the various governorates, but who are not really journalists. That affected the outcome of electing representatives to the general conference. 
Then there is the problem of financial requirements. The YJS is totally dependent on government funding, which makes it unable to do its job properly in terms of protecting journalists. 
There is also the issue of administrative measures to re-create the syndicate. 
Finally, there is the heated political drive to influence the organizations. We have to really address these issues. 
One way to do that is to re-draft the charter of the syndicate along the new realities and objectives. 
Q: How do you evaluate, as an official at an international media organization, press freedom in Yemen and the performance of the Yemeni press? 
A: We cannot talk about freedom of the press separately and independently of democracy. They complement each other or rather they are two sides of the same coin. There is no freedom of the press without democracy, and there is never democracy without freedom of the press. 
The Yemeni experiment, though still young, as it began with the reunification of Yemen in 1990, deserves encouragement. Those who believe that freedom of the press is the sole right of media men are at fault and harbor a wrong concept which does not serve democracy activists. Freedom of the press is a basic requirement for democracy. At the same time, it is its strong defenses, protector and watchful eye. 
Therefore, protecting press freedom, which was born with the birth of Yemeni unity and democracy, is the responsibility of the whole society and not only of journalists. At the same time, press freedom represents a gain to the whole society with all its sectors and individuals regardless of their political or ideological belongings. 
Yemen is currently viewed with respect in the world because of the freedom of expression and opinion and freedom of the press which it enjoys. A visible evidence of such global appreciation is the convening of the U.N. and UNESCO sponsored and organized international seminar in early January, 1996 in Sanaa. That gathering met under the the theme of “Independent and Pluralist Arab Media” and resulted in the issuance of the ‘Sanaa Declaration. A large number of Arab and international journalists participated. The Yemeni authority and press should cherish and endeavor to maintain that international recognition. 
Q: What is the role of the International Journalists Organization (IJO) and its regional center in Yemen and what are its activities in the regional and international arenas? 
A: The IJO is a voluntary, professional organization that is totally independent. It is over 50 years old. The Organization has more than a quarter of a million journalist members in more than 110 countries and has regional centers in five continents. I head the one in Sanaa which was established in November, 1991. 
The IJO is mainly concerned with protecting and defending journalists no matter what the circumstances they face while performing their noble duty. Among the Organization’s top concerns are also the training and rehabilitating of journalists. It further encourages the establishment of local professional entities in various countries in addition to regional ones. 
The IJO is an internationally recognized non-governmental organization and is an ‘A’ observer member of the U.N. and UNESCO’s Consultative Council. It participates in world activities sponsored by both organizations on the regional and international levels. 
We have recently decided to issue an Arabic version of the international bulletin from the Sanaa regional office. That is why we decided to move our printing press from the regional center for the African countries in Addis Ababa to the one for Arab countries in Sanaa. 
Negotiations are currently under way with the Ethiopian government to complete the necessary procedures for this purpose. As far as Yemen is concerned, the Center organized a specialized training course for Arab journalists, including Yemenis. The Center also joined the Paris-based UNESCO’s Consultative Council in organizing the aforementioned international seminar in Sanaa in January 1990 along with other specialized international organizations. The regional center further coordinates its efforts with the Arab Journalists Union which is the regional entity of the Arab journalists in its capacity as member of the IJO. In 1999, the regional center’s efforts will focus on issuing media periodicals. We plan to use the forthcoming international press day – May 3rd – to promote more international appreciation for journalism.