Text of the Annual Report on Yemen of the Committee to Protect Journalists [Archives:2000/15/Law & Diplomacy]

April 10 2000

During the heady days following the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990, there was a remarkable proliferation of private newspapers and a new vigor in public discourse. In recent years, however, the Yemeni government has been following the repressive example of its regional neighbors. Although Yemen still boasts of one of the freest and liveliest presses in the region, authorities have been steadily increasing their pressure on independent and opposition journalists since 1994, when civil war broke out between north and south.
As Yemenis geared up for the country’s first ever presidential election in September, authorities carried out a number of punitive measures against journalists, including arrests, prosecutions, censorship, and acts of intimidation. In the first three months of the year, three journalists were detained and held for varying periods. Others were summoned for questioning by prosecutors or security agents. During the year, at least seven newspapers stood trial for alleged press offenses in, what some journalists described, as an attempt by authorities to muzzle criticism in advance of the September election.
Yemen’s press law and penal code give authorities sweeping powers to prosecute journalists on vague charges such as offending “the State, the Cabinet, or parliamentary institutions” and publishing “false information” that “threatens public order or the public interest.”In one of the year’s most prominent cases, editor Hisham Basharaheel and writer Ali Haitham Ghareeb of the prominent Aden-based paper Al-Ayyam were charged with “instigating national feuds,” “instigating the spirit of separatism,” and “harming national unity.” The charges stemmed from an opinion column written by Ghareeb that criticized, what he described as, northern political hegemony over southern provinces. In August, the journalists were handed suspended prison terms of six and 10 months respectively. However, the court rejected the prosecutor’s bid to close the newspaper.
On several occasions, authorities resorted to censorship to silence opposition and foreign newspapers. In late February, successive issues of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura were banned on the pretext that two separate editions of the paper were being published in violation of the law. And on February 27, authorities temporarily banned distribution of the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, apparently because of an article on Russian arms sales to Yemen and the prospect of Yemeni arms transfers to Eritrea.
Beyond prosecutions and censorship, journalists continued to complain of extralegal harassment, such as the interruption of their phone lines, surveillance, and intimidation by security agents.
In July, CPJ vice chairman Terry Anderson traveled to Yemen to express CPJ’s concerns to government officials. He met with Prime Minister Abdel Karim al-Iryani, who declared that harassment and threats against journalists are “abhorrent to our laws and ideals” and should be condemned. The prime minister promised to investigate any cases reported to him. “We are committed to freedom of the press,” Prime Minister al-Iryani told Anderson. “We are ready to listen to any report of a violation and ready to take action….We highly condemn harassment and threats against journalists.” Still, al-Iryani said, his government would continue to file court cases against journalists and newspapers that publish, what he referred to as, lies. He also refused to promise an end to censorship of foreign publications entering the country, saying that such censorship occurs mainly for ethical rather than political reasons.
In the following months, government censorship of local papers intensified. Just before the country’s September 23 presidential election, the Ministry of Information ordered the closure of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura. A few weeks later, a court imposed a one-month suspension on the opposition weekly Al-Haq after it carried an article that criticized the government.
In one positive development, the weekly Al-Rai al-Aam was allowed to resume publication in May after a six-month ban (incurred because of an article that criticized Saudi Arabia). President Saleh reportedly reversed the ban after the paper’s editor appealed to him in person at a ceremony commemorating Yemen’s 1990 unification.
Committee for Protecting Journalists
March 2000 – New York