The Day Sanaa Arrested the BBC! [Archives:1998/22/Front Page]

June 1 1998

Today, Monday, June 1st, the three-man BBC television crew is expected to be allowed to leave Sanaa, at the end of a nasty ordeal. Robin Barnwell, Rageh Omaar, and Frank Smith were in Yemen to shoot a feature for the BBC program Correspondent..
The theme was ‘Tribal Yemen’, in the background of the kidnapping of the Mitchells. Appropriately, they chose the Al-Taheri of Bani Dhabian tribe in Marib, where the Mitchells were ‘hosted’.
On Tuesday evening, May 26th, the trio, who were on their way back after completing their mission, were arrested by officers from the Ministry of Interior about one kilometer before the Sanaa checkpoint. They spent the night at the Ministry. They say they were interrogated and were also roughed up by Brig-General Yahia Al-Amri, Deputy Minister of Interior. Their equipment and passports were taken away.
Earlier, and in anticipation of being arrested and/or searched, they gave the films they had shot to a local tribesman in order to deliver the same to the UK embassy in Sanaa. The footage is said to have ended up with the Ministry of Interior, through local tribesmen who are on the payroll of the government.
The three were then interrogated by the office of the Attorney-General. Following 12 hours of grueling questioning, the 14-pages of questions and answers show little other than the repeated charge of “visiting a restricted area without government approval”.
In addition, the public prosecutor presented a phrase in the press standing regulations (not the law) stating that foreign journalists who wish to cover events outside Sanaa must have a prior approval and ‘escort’ from the Ministry of Information.
The BBC team had neither, according to the Ministry.
The BBC trio claim otherwise.
They say they had approached the Yemeni Embassy in London with a request to shoot in tribal Yemen. The request was communicated to the Ministry of Information, which approved it. They were given journalist visas. Robin Barnwell arrived a few days before the others in order to discuss their program with the Ministry of Information. “I met with officials there.”
He says he did bring up their interest to visit Bani Dhabian. The Ministry objected on grounds that it was a dangerous place, and that the authorities could not guarantee their safety. The BBC team said they will arrange their own safe passage. “But they did not tell us the area was off-limits.”As a matter of fact, there is no official Yemeni decision that certain regions are restricted. Foreign journalists are not given any written guidelines to specify the “do’s and dont’s” of covering events in Yemen.
The real dispute has to do with the feeling of the Ministry of Interior that it has been outmaneuvered by the tribes. The kidnappers – instead of looking bad in media reports – actually come out better than the cops or other officials. Even former hostages are sympathetic.
That is why the Ministry tries to block any contact between journalists and the tribes lest the latter should succeed even more in presenting their case.
A local sheikh put it this way: “The party which controls the information, controls the situation. We will show respect to the carriers of the word.” Sadly, Yemeni officials have yet to learn to play it right with the media.