When an Inefficient Security System Punishes the Free Press [Archives:2001/17/Viewpoint]

April 23 2001

Last Friday, I was shocked to hear about a horrifying terrorist incident, in which an unarmed civilian was bombed inside his own house and in front of his own children. The incident made me stupefied and I asked in anger: What on earth is going on in our country?
Then I decided to send a journalist to cover this horrendous incident, which is yet another consequence of the wide spread of weapons in the country and the inefficiency of the security system. Once our journalist arrived at the scene, he saw many armed vehicles belonging to the security forces. Of course, he wanted to fully cover this incident for Yemen Times, but he was prevented from even taking photos of the building. The security forces told the journalist that any story on this topic could lead to annoyance among the new government, even at the presidential level, so they preferred not to cover it. However, our journalist, prevailed upon them and told them that this would serve to help guide the security forces, let the public learn the truth and make the government aware of what is going on. As the journalist approached the house where the victim was murdered, he was received by the victim’s family, who requested him to take photos of the place where the bomb exploded and have interviews with the eyewitnesses to report about this horrible incident to the public. Yemen Times has always been a means for raising awareness of the public regarding instances of the sufferings and human rights abuses of the citizens, so this would be yet another milestone in that direction to unravel the truth. So, without any obstacle, our journalist took photos of the bloody scene of the room in which pieces of the victim’s dead body were scattered everywhere. Not only that! But tens of machinegun bullet holes were evident all over the walls of the house. The scene was frightening and warranted urgent action by the new Minister of Interior.
After taking the photos and making the interview, the journalist was about to leave the house for the newspaper, when he was captured by the security forces, who humiliated him, snatched his camera film and cassette, and took him to the Ministry of Interior. Thanks to the sagacity of the minister, he ordered his immediate release, but the camera, film and cassette have not been returned to him to date. What is more outrageous is that the security forces threatened him not to report about the incident! They even had him sign a statement that he will not publish what he saw!
In other words, the security is silencing the press, and forcing the journalists to violate and disregard their noble mission of delivering the truth. Is this the Yemen of tomorrow? Is this the country we long to have? A country where the police ask the journalist not to publish about a tragedy and hide it from the public. Isn’t it enough that the official media is not publishing the complete facts? As now, they want us, the so called free independent press, to suppress the truth! What is still more shocking is that the incident is solely a matter between two tribal groups, and has nothing to do with the state, unless the security forces want to say something else!
The issue here is that we are trying to bring the facts about the miseries, sufferings, and violence that are taking place around us in an unbiased, independent manner. Yet, we are facing tremendous pressures and obstacles.
Wasn’t it the president who said that the freedom of press is what the government is committed to? Wasn’t Yemen the host for the 1999 emerging democracies that pledged extensive support for press freedom?
It would have been much wiser for the security forces to let the journalist do his duty properly, and provide him with all assistance needed to make an independent story that would reflect the misery of the public and bring the issue of tribal vengeance to focus. They could have utilized the story in a more positive and constructive way to capture those responsible for the gruesome tragedy and punish them for their horrible act, rather than cover up their unpardonable crimes.
It is a pity to see that the mentality of the security forces has not changed over the years. They still believe that they have the right to throttle the press by confiscating films and cassettes, thinking that this serves the interests of security of the country and people!
The security people cannot hide the fact that with more than 50 million weapons in the hands of the people, the situation in Yemen is truly critical in terms of security. Many foreigners unfortunately think of Yemen as a haven for weapons and weapon dealers. Even though this doesn’t imply that Yemen is a haven for terrorists, yet frankly speaking, if security forces continue to prevent the truth from coming out, they are contributing to this common belief. It is about time that the leadership removed those autocratic security officials who think that they have the right to punish the press for what others do. If the president sincerely wants change, this change should not only be in the government alone, but should also involve those security officers making them change their old mentality and thereby salvage the security scenario in Yemen. Those officers have proved again and again that they are inefficient and incapable of accomplishing the task of ensuring stability and security for the country. Isn’t it about time to give other brighter officers a chance?
In brief, the latest incident has proved that the security scenario is critical, and it is now the time to act. Action should start by solid steps by the president to investigate the truth in such stories and in the reported oppression of the press by the security forces. We have trust in our president, and know that he will do something about it!