The Press Law – fighting against Journalism [Archives:2006/955/Opinion]

June 15 2006

By: Ali Al-Sarari
It is narrated that, James Monroe, the fifth president of USA said, “If I have the option to choose between free government and free journalism I would choose free journalism.” Over the past 200 years Americans have experienced the importance of free journalism over free government. The people of the world have come to the agreement that free journalism will create a free government, but no the reverse.

Having free journalism in Yemen, however, generates fear within the existing Yemeni government. Here journalism would have a profound effect on the way the government is formed, it policies, and national interests that need defending. So far, however, we can't site one example that shows that our journalistic abilities have been able to dissolve a failed or corrupt government.

The opposition and its dependent newspapers have shaped what is now a considerable source of worry among government officials, who have lost their ability to keep any semblance of secrecy of illegal possessions in properties and accumulated wealth. They are no more able to veil their illegal practices that do harm to Yemeni people.

Free journalism in Yemen plays the role that should be played by the Central Organization for Control and Auditing (COCA) over the ministers and other government officials in regards to stripping bare and disclosing the corrupt and unlawful governmental practices against our people. One could say there exists, to a certain extent, a public opinion that follows government official scandals directing its criticism at them.

The government has a successful career in its lengthy list of setbacks on human rights and democratic practices that were originally announced 16 years ago coinciding with the Yemeni Reunification. During its first four years, Yemen achieved a reasonable amount of fame, perking the interest of democratic proponents around the world. They hailed Yemen as the best example of the Arab world whose democratic steps deserved to be traced and emulated. Their generosity extended itself in recognizing Yemen as a founding member of the Growing Democracies Forum (GDF) which held its first conference in Sana'a.

But the Yemeni record of human rights, liberties, and democratic practices have degenerated remarkably over the years; depriving Yemen of its GDF membership. Our exit from the forum is linked directly to the constitutional amendments of 2001 that extended Presidential and Parliamentary seats two more years. This was a clear indicator that Yemeni democracy was not moving forward but lagging with clear warnings of more dictatorship and tyranny.

Naturally, Yemeni free journalism was against these setbacks, renewing its struggle to maintain free journalism as a viable space. What has materialized has subjected journalists to various forms of persecution and assaults as is seen in the reports of beatings, abductions, kidnapping, illegal detentions, threats and acts of defamation. Adding to these insults is the injury of humiliating bribes and forced illegal inducements on journalists. In this manner the government has been charged not only for its political and democratic setbacks, but also for its total contempt and violation of the Press and Information Law approved of by parliamentary majority in 1992.

While simultaneously calling for the prohibition of prison terms for journalists in countries like Egypt, the Yemeni government tried exploiting these sound bite opportunities lending its self the mantle of “progressive” among the international community. The biggest problem preoccupying governmental minds was finding a legal cover for its assaults against home grown journalists, hence the creation of a new Press Law. The new Press Law, to appease the international community, included clauses that canceled prison terms for pressmen, but aimed to pressure the journalistic society into complaisant silence by giving the Ministry of Information larger administrative powers. Journalism was now under the mercy of these new administrative procedures that had much more liberty to observe and control what newspaper could issue.

Practically speaking, the media feels there needs to be a certain amount of adjustments made on the Press and Information Law of 1992. And while the law was positive in its ability to prevent mediated control over newspapers and made their issuance easier, content wise the same law imposed many constraints on freedoms of the press. Therefore, the press has continued ask for more guarantees, better practices for press liberties and more rights for journalists to be encapsulated into the new Press Law.

Yet the Yemeni government has set a draft that includes many new constraints that contradict established press freedoms. When the new law was publicly announced it was faced with strong opposition. Press personnel acted by issuing a multitude of critical pices and symposiums at the Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate Headquarters in its attempt to codify the drafted law from various political and legal angles. Their critisim clearly indicates to what extent the government was pulling back from the present law and to what extent the government was trying to dispose of what was left of the democratic margin. This same draft, in addition to local opposition, was opposed by the international community, in particular by those countries that linked their agreement to that of Yemeni journalists.

In order to pass the new law the government made two significant steps. First it reappointed Hassan Al-Lawzi to the Ministry of Information (a position he held from 1980 to 1990) hinting at the possibility of renewed censorship and control over newspapers as had been the case previously. The second was to lie about pushing the Chairman of Journalist's Syndicate to resign. This was the initial step to rid the syndicate of its present leadership known for its hard-line attitude on journalism and its rights. The government was now poised to hold sway over the syndicate and try to disintegrate the journalists in order to minimize the extent of their opposition to the new law.

The government has been waging war against the Press and its liberties. It seems that the latest option being used is aimed at bringing the Law to heel to its side as the last reserve in its continued battle on journalism.

Ali Al-Sarari is a Yemeni Journalist and a well-known politician. He is the head of the information department at the Yemeni Socialist Party.