Why Al-Khaiwani matters to the US [Archives:2004/782/Opinion]

October 18 2004

Jane Novak
[email protected]

Yemen, a country far from the US, penetrated the American consciousness in 2000 with the bombing of the USS Cole. After 9/11, Yemen, a beautiful country, rich in culture, became better known to Americans as the birthplace of Usama bin Laden.
Americans slowly became aware of Yemen's march toward democracy and that President Ali Abdullah Saleh, having guided Yemen through tumultuous years, was reelected in 1999. They learned that under his stewardship, a legislature was created in 2001.
Yemen is a nation with a strong indigenous pro-democracy movement. At the Arab Democracy Conference held in Sa'ana, its host President Saleh called democracy “the rescue ship” for political regimes and the “choice of the modern age for all people.” Yemen is reforming in the face of high unemployment, and less than full literacy. There are more than 12 political parties established in Yemen.
One of the most uniquely Yemeni institutions is the Children's Parliament, instituted to teach students the concepts and principles of democracy, elections and consensus. In this advancing democracy, civil society organizations receive government support with an aim of enhancing their role.
The developing democracy in Yemen was not imposed by the US but was shaped and nurtured by its people. The Yemeni media has undertaken much of the hard work enfranchising and educating the electorate. “The media represents a major component of the democratic transformation undergone so far in Yemen” remarked James Rawley, Yemen's UN resident coordinator.
“Since the reunification of Yemen, the country has witnessed the transition to a more pluralistic and free media key hallmark of the movement towards a democratic system of governance. The political space – not found in many other countries of the region – was further enhanced recently by the decision of H.E president Ali Abdullah Saleh in May, to abolish the provision for detaining journalists for what they say or write” Rawley said.
Yemen is a Middle Eastern country staking its own path to democracy. Yemen is also a study in the difficulties facing reforming states. This month, contravening the law prohibiting retribution against journalists, the West Sana'a Court sentenced Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, the editor-in-chief of Al-Shura Weekly, to prison as punishment for a series of articles on governmental performance. In a quick, secretive trail, without full legal council, during the judicial vacation, Al-Khaiwani was convicted and sentenced to a year of hard labor.
Despite vocal protests from international journalist foundations, Yemeni unions and human rights workers, Al-Khaiwani remains jailed for performing the media function so essential in a democracy. As a further assault on journalistic immunity, the Yemeni the Press and Publications Attorney interrogated the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Wasat Newspaper, Jamal Amir, for allegedly causing harm to Yemen-Saudi relations by the publication of news articles. That case is pending.
The media is known in the US as the fourth estate because of its vital role as a check on government. In a reforming state, the dynamic between authoritarianism and popular empowerment is often played out as a conflict between the press and the state. In these cases, many Americans are hoping this one step backward from press freedom will be followed by two steps forward toward liberty, especially for Mr. al-Khaiwani.
The noble Yemeni people are at a crossroads between hope and despair. Will Yemen devolve into an autocratic regime with a frozen media like so many others in the region or will it continue down the difficult path toward true democracy?
President Bush of the United States has stated: “A vibrant, successful democracy at the heart of the Middle East will discredit (terrorists) radical ideology of hate.” If this is true, then a free and unmolested Yemeni media enhances American security. Having great respect for liberty, and those who struggle for it, many Americans hope the “rescue ship” for Yemen, democracy, is not sinking, especially in light of continued media harassment.
*Jane Novak is an American journalist, who has written recently for the Washington Times.