Media Independence: A NATIONAL NECESSITY [Archives:1999/12/Focus]

March 22 1999

By: Abdullah Ali Al-Sabri
Member of the Federation of People’s Forces
The media in modern democratic societies is seen as the fourth branch of authority – besides the three well-known ones – judiciary, legislative, and executive. To perform its role in the service of the community, the media must therefore enjoy two vital rights: independence and freedom.
Since the reunification of Yemen, the press has enjoyed a relatively high level of both. Thus, the press was able to freely follow and cover the events and changes taking place in the country. However, since the end of the civil war in 1994, there has been a clear drive to reduce the margin of press freedom. This is visible in the various forms of harassment to which editors and journalists have been exposed, thereby greatly minimizing press independence and freedom.
Let me start by indicating that much of the effective media is actually a government monopoly. The two television stations and the various radio stations are all owned and managed by the authorities. The state refuses to relinquishes its monopoly by licensing private television and/or radio stations.
Thus the only venue open for public participation is the written media. This is a very limited role for two reasons:
1) Most of the people of Yemen, especially the adults are illiterate. Therefore, they can tune in, but not buy a paper and read it. In addition, even for those who can read and write, the habit of reading is a hard one to keep up.
2) Most newspapers are city-based and have a limited circulation. Thus they are not circulated in the vast countryside, where some 70% of the people of Yemen live. Even in cities, the high cost of print prohibits adequate circulation.
Thus, it is actually the state that controls most of the media and is responsible for shaping public opinion. Now, it is irritated even by the small margin of influence the non-government papers have.
The acts of harassment inflicted upon the press over the last few weeks are ominous. They offer a very strong evidence of the state’s inclination to go back to the old ways of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. The arrest and trial of several journalists, the periodic summoning and interrogation are just a few examples example of the new oppressive line.
The press in Yemen was somewhat lucky in that it had enjoyed a certain degree of freedom and independence.
Another tactic the ruling authorities use in their on-slaught on independent and free journalists is defamation. The politicians use the more powerful press they control to slander the people they see as refusing to bow to them. They intimidate them, and often shroud them with bad names.
There was an additional recent attack against the independent and free press. Dr. Abdul-Karim Al-Iryani, Prime Minister, who is supposedly an educated and future-oriented man, issued an order forbidding any government or quasi government institution or company to advertise in non-governmental local media. They can advertise in the international non-Yemeni media, but not in the local papers which criticize him and his government.
I have mentioned that half of the press in the country plus all radio and TV stations are completely state-owned and state-operated Unfortunately, these organs understand their mission as serving the politicians, and not the public. Thus they become a tool in the hands of the authorities which is used to justify their policies and actions.
In certain instances, this media is used in a crude way either to magnify the illusionary achievements of the state or to prattle ceaselessly on the state’s non existent feats.
Not only are the official media not doing their job, they are actually often used to undermine the independent and free media. Thus, papers like September 26th, which is managed by the press secretary of the president of the republic, and which supposedly is the mouthpiece of the armed forces, has often lashed out against papers and editors.
They call them agents of imperialism, zionism, masonism, or whatever; they call them traitors; they call them secessionists and unpatriotic; and they call them different things. If you do not bow to corrupt and power-hungry politicians you are unpatriotic; and if you do not kiss-up to crooked officials, you are an agent of a foreign country.
Given the swift and immediate impact of the media, particularly radio and TV, in forming public opinion in the absence of similar independent means, we can understand the state’s meticulous care to monopolize these means of communication.
We can understand the state’s actions and drive to fully control the media if it chooses to turn its back on democracy and freedom. That would be logical. But it is fantastically ironic that our officials and their media continue barking and chanting about democracy and pluralism, while they still do these illegal things.
In a modern society with real democratic institutions, there is nothing called the Ministry of the Media or “Information”. The name of this ministry is usually associated with propagandist states or totalitarian regimes. Under such systems, freedom of the press and of public opinion is restrained and restricted.
Media as a propaganda tool directed by the Minister of Information is by no means allowed in a modern democracy based on civil society. The reason is that the ruling party, to whom the minister will of course belong, will then abuse such a facility. If the state needs to own and operate media organs, then they need to be independent of the direct political control of government officials. Otherwise, we are back to the old ways of operating.
If the state in Yemen is seriously committed to democracy, then how can we understand the on-going anti-freedom acts of harassment and violations? Why should the state have complete control over the media means, and why should the state confiscate the people’s and the other political parties’ right to the media?
I understand that we can’t hope for a full-grown democracy to be attained overnight, but, it is also disturbing to see signs of regression. Democracy is a process, and it must continue to go forward, unless our politicians have decided to change our course of evolution.
Our political leadership often boasts that our political system is advanced by regional comparison. This may partly be true in some ways, but it is not true in many significant ways.
Let us divide the countries into two groups.
1. Democratizing Countries:
There are many countries, and Yemen is one of them, which have stated that they want democracy. These include Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, etc. In most of these countries, there are real institutions that counter-balance and stop the excesses of the politicians.
What happened in the Egyptian Press Syndicate is an example. The authorities tried to change the rules in order to control the syndicate. The effort backfired and was checked.
In Morocco and Lebanon, there are private radio and television stations.
In Jordan, the official media serves as an effective watchdog against corruption and has exposed bad officials.
2. Non-Democratic Countries:
There is another set of countries – actually the majority in the region, which do not profess to embark on democratic practices, at least not in the Western sense. But these countries offer their people bread and butter.
In short, therefore, Yemen does not compare favorably in either camp, in spite of the gloating and boasting of our leaders.
All we ask for is a certain space of freedom to be given to the independent press. I also would like the authorities to consider breaking their monopoly over the radio and television stations. Maybe we can start by licensing radio stations.
The reason for this appeal is that I fully realize the paramount responsibility of the media to be reinforcing the democratic choice in our evolution. And this cannot be fulfilled when all media is in the hand of the regime?
In theory, the Constitution and the laws of Yemen guarantee the people’s ownership of all media. Can the government abide by the law and allow the Yemeni people to launch their own radio or television channels?
This, I think, is the real test of whether our officials want to go forward in our democratic evolution, or whether they want to go back to the old ways.
To transform ourselves into a civil society of civilized institutions, we must first have a vision of the tomorrow we aspire for. Our movement should not be ad hoc, or because we are pushed by others. We have to accept the values of the 21st century and join the civilized world.