Journalism in Yemen: A battle for truth in the age of terror [Archives:2005/876/Reportage]

September 12 2005

By Jane Novak
For Yemen Times

A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report recently said that Yemen is “infested with corruption” throughout all sectors including corruption monitoring agencies, and the Yemeni government lacks an effective system of exposing and checking corruption. Rampant corruption is a logical consequence of the concentration of power in Yemen: Ali Abdullah Saleh is the president, the head of the military, the chief judicial officer, the head of the ruling party, and essentially controls the parliament and the official media. He has been in power for 27 years.

In the absence of power sharing among effective institutions that balance each other, the only mechanism that demands the accountability of Yemeni public officials to the Yemeni people is the opposition and independent media.

In Yemen, opposition and independent journalists perform their duty to the nation in an extremely hostile environment. This Western ally, the Yemeni government, at times behaves quite criminally and brutally, and it prefers to do so without international or national media attention. As a result, Yemeni journalists are repeatedly attacked by security forces, the judiciary, and the official media.

Open Season on Journalists

In the early hours of August 23rd in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, Jamal Amer, the editor of al-Wasat newspaper, was kidnapped as he was returning home. Mr. Amer was accosted by plain clothed security forces that blindfolded him and forced him into their car at gunpoint. They drove Mr. Amer to an unknown location and beat brutally him for hours. They threatened to throw him off a cliff. They shot at him and interrogated him about the paper's funding. They threatened to behead him. They threatened his children.

Al-Wasat had recently published an investigative report detailing college scholarships granted to Yemeni students. The article named 56 children and relatives of top officials who were awarded scholarships to the US, UK, and Canada. More qualified students were given scholarships to other countries or passed over entirely. Five relatives of a senior military official, Ali Maqsa'a, received scholarships. Scholarships were also awarded to seven relatives of Abdulkarim Al-Eryani, political advisor to the president, and five to relatives of Ali Mohammad Al-Anesi, the presidential office general manager, among other high ranking officials.

The al-Wasat article also reported that these less gifted sons and daughters of privilege were receiving monthly allotments from various sources including the Ministry of Higher Education, the Ministry of Defense, the Interior Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office, and the Yemeni Oil Company. In this way, a merit based awards program designed increase the social mobility of gifted and studious Yemeni youth was undermined by nepotism.

Eyewitnesses report the men who abducted Mr. Amer were driving a military vehicle, license plate number 2111121. Mr. Amer was released after several torturous hours with warnings not to report the incident. In an interview with the Yemen Times, Mr. Amer said he was instructed not to publish the names of corrupt personalities in Yemen and that his tongue would be cut out if he continued to expose the criminal acts of top officials.

Amnesty International reports that next day the office of Ahmed al-Hajj, an Associated Press correspondent in Sana'a, was raided by security forces. His files and two computers were seized and an employee arrested. On the 25th, security forces seized files and computers of Sami Galeb, editor of the independent newspaper, al-Nidaa. Another journalist, Mohammed Saleh Hadiri, reported receiving threats after publishing an article describing the regime as “futile.”

Khaled Salman, who published a report entitled “Those who are robbing the nation's wealth,” was summoned before the press attorney. It was the thirteenth arraignment for the paper, the mouthpiece of the Yemeni Socialist Party, a frequent regime target. Women Reporters Without Borders advised that their license was revoked following reporting on the July riots in Yemen. Jamal Hassan, the editor of the independent Al-Osboa, was suspended from working for two months.

The events of the week fit an ongoing and escalating pattern of violence, repression, and intimidation against Yemeni journalists including defamation, threats, assaults, arrests, letter bombs, and the issuance of clone newspapers-ie, look alike newspapers replicating opposition newspapers in an effort to deliberately mislead the Yemeni public. After the kidnapping of Jamal Amer, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate said in a statement, “The press body in Yemen is experiencing the age of terror, especially since the publications started speaking openly about corruption and scandals in which officials are involved, including the Yemeni president personally.”

With a public budget dedicated primarily to rewarding President Saleh's family members and cronies who overwhelmingly populate governmental bureaucracies, much investigative reporting dealing with corruption leads to top officials. In banning direct criticism, demanding a “blame but don't name” policy from journalists, the regime may hope to create a generalized sense that “corruption” is a separate entity from corrupt officials who can continue to avoid both responsibility and consequences for their actions. Hassan al-Haifi, senior editor for the Yemen Times, described the regime's attitude toward journalists in a recent article: “you have freedom to issue newspapers, but do not write about us or criticize us, for we are immune to criticism no matter what laws we break or what public assets we gobble up.”

The War of Words

Masters of the politics of personal destruction, the official media is engaged in a war of words that demonizes regime critics, notably journalists and opposition party leaders, with outlandish and insulting terminology. One governmental article described the members of the Socialist party as carnivorous, betrayers of the state, separatists, obscene, and homeless vagabonds. Another article labeled the head of the Nasserite party as a buffoon and implored God to break his mouth. The mouthpiece of the Yemeni Defense Ministry, the 26 September Newspaper, in August described opposition journalists as a “third sex” in an article entitled “The Children of Perversion.” Such personal attacks are the norm of the official media in Yemen.

One standard tactic of the official media is blaming the victim. Mr. Amer, after his kidnapping, was vilified as a liar, a subversive, and a foreign agent “inflaming the fire.” An article in the governmental al-Thoura accused opposition journalists of leading the country into chaos. Another al-Thoura article said the journalists were asking for foreign intervention and criticized them for publicizing reports of international organizations (like the Failed State Index by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) which were labeled as infused with Catholic values and written by people unable to find Yemen on the map. The Gulf News offers this translation of one of al-Thoura's articles describing journalists as prone to vice: “Anyone who offends the reputation of his country and damages its image abroad is not only patriotically bankrupt but has no record of morals and values that can protect him from falling into the swamp of vice.”

This publicly funded, ongoing barrage of absurdly derogatory statements and wild accusations by the governmental media diverts attention from the original issues raised by the victims of governmental ire. Thus the official media is a means of shutting down dialog rather than encouraging it, of discouraging not encouraging consensus, and of hiding rather than revealing the truth.

Military Secrets

In Yemen, familial relationships and loyalty, not merit or talent, are the prerequisite for positions of authority. This incestuous configuration holds true in the Yemeni military and security forces so famously partnered with the US in the War on Terror. President Saleh's son, Ahmad, is the commander of the Special Forces and the Republican Guard. Saleh's nephew Tariq is the commander of the Central Security, and Tariq's brother is the commander of the National Security. Ali Mohsin Al-Ahmar, Saleh's half brother, is the commander of the North West Region, and Ali Saleh Al-Ahmar, Saleh's brother, is the commander of the Air Forces. The US government is partnered with a family, not a nation.

The military budget consumes 25% of Yemen's public expenditures, and tripled from 1998 to 2003 when military expenditures were reported at 148,139 (millions of Riyals) by the IMF. A vast array of security forces and military equipment was deployed during the July riots which were prompted in part by a lack of social resources. The Yemeni government recently purchased 14 MiG 29's for $400 million dollars from Russia. On August 29th, Khaled Hamadi, the Sana'a correspondent for Alquds Al Arabia, a London based newspaper, was abducted and interrogated by the Yemeni Air Force. Mr. Hamadi had earlier reported the crash of a Yemeni MiG 29, the second in two months, in a report that described the shabby condition of Air Force equipment. He was released only after promising not to report on military topics.

On September 1st, the official News Agency of Yemen, Saba, issued a blunt statement, “An official source in the defense ministry strongly warned local media and correspondents of foreign newspapers and news agencies not to deal with secrets related to armed forces and national security.” The 26 September announced a ban on reporting military topics: “The publication of news or information on the armed and security forces without authorization is banned because it is a matter that touches on national security.”

Considering its budget and its leadership, the Yemeni armed forces may have many secrets that it prefers to keep hidden. This “redline,” beyond which journalists may not cross, reduces the rights of all Yemenis to a transparent government and an accurate accounting of a substantial portion of the public budget. Additionally, the U.N. has repeatedly expressed concerns about weapons trafficking from Yemen. This is another area that may be off-limits for investigative reporting now that journalists are banned from discussing the military.

The Sham of Reform

Yemeni governmental newspapers deny reported events (like the recent kidnapping of three tourists), tout imaginary progress, announce reform plans that never materialize, and engage in fear mongering. Yemen's official media is also a propaganda machine that creates a facade of democracy and reform for the West, often in glowing articles filled with self-congratulatory praise. The official media announces anti-corruption programs to the international community as Yemeni journalists who identify corrupt officials are assaulted in obscurity. Hassan al-Haifi in his article wrote, “Democracy is, in fact, nowhere to be seen or heard except in the speeches of the President and the boring lengthy articles of the hired pens that never seem to get tired of filling the government papers with garbage that hardly anyone reads.”

It is rather difficult to make the case that the problem in Yemen is too much journalistic freedom but that was the editorial viewpoint of the English language Yemen Observer. In the days after the kidnapping of Mr. Amer, without mentioning the incident, the Observer ran an editorial calling for a law that prohibits “slander of the powerful” and blamed the journalists themselves for the attacks against them: “The sporadic violence against journalists is merely a result of an unchecked democratic openness both in the mentality of the journalists and the readers.” The body of the article encouraged self-censorship and legal restrictions while disparaging the press corps as immature.

Yemeni judicial reform has been publicized internationally as a demonstration of dedication to good governance. Actually reform is hindered by top regime officials. Minister of Justice Adnan Al-Jefry reported that he has been contacted hundreds of times by individuals trying to influence his decisions (which are designed to make the judiciary more impartial and immune to external interference). Some of those contacting him included Prime Minister Bajamal, Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar, speaker of the parliament, Abdulkarim Al-Eryani, political advisor to the President, and Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a senior military official, among others.

U.S. Policy and Public Diplomacy: The Walk and The Talk

It is stated US policy to pursue democratic values and human rights as central elements of foreign policy. “President Bush has broken with six decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the hope of purchasing stability at the price of liberty,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said. Publicly US officials frequently prod nations and leaders to implement civil rights in practice. Yemen is rarely mentioned by the administration, and then only as “an important partner in the War on Terror.”

Accommodating the lack of freedom in Yemen in exchange for cooperation in the War on Terror encourages the pattern of nepotism, a sense of impunity, rampant corruption, and increasing brutality. While U.S. support for President Saleh and his relatives may have a short term impact on the security of the American people, the impact of this uncritical alliance on 20 million Yemeni people needs be carefully considered. The longer term implications for global security must be considered as well. As a Harvard University study has shown, terrorism correlates closely with levels of political poverty, not economic poverty. If President Bush means to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions,” he can find one in Yemen.

Free speech is both a basic human right and an essential element of democratic governance. The first U.S. Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, wrote: “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” In the 21st century, liberty is an interdependent phenomenon which must include Jamal Amer and the Yemeni press corps. “Rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed,” President Bush has quite correctly stated. The brutal attacks on Yemeni journalists are unacceptable on many levels and for many reasons. President Bush would do well, as he said at his second inaugural, to “encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.”