Yemen needs a free press [Archives:2002/10/Focus]

March 4 2002

Mohammed H. Al-Qadhi
[email protected]
The Republic of Yemen is slowly trying to find its way to a new system of democracy. The regime is constantly torn between those who are comfortable with the old ways with deeply-rooted economic and power interests, and those who call for progress in the nations march forward to join the world community and the 21st century. One area of this power struggle has to do with freedom of the press and the media.
Press freedoms taken after war
For almost four years after Yemeni unification in 1990, newspapers have were able to produce brave reports on different issues, criticizing the government openly. But after the civil war of 1994, between the Peoples General Congress (PGC) and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the Yemeni press was thrust into turmoil, through various forms of harassment..
For the last few years, their syndicate has not been working well because of the desire of the political parties to control it. It was only in 1999 that an election for a new board for the syndicate was conducted. But it was boycotted by many journalists, particularly those working for opposition newspapers. They accused the government of seeking1g to control the syndicate.
We can highlight the main constraints the Yemeni press is going through:
Legal constraints
Journalists in Yemen are faced with a number of obstacles, either legislative, or various sorts of harassment. However, we shall first say that the living conditions of journalists are very miserable. They are among the poorest in the country. Their work for newspapers is not well-paid.
The low income of the Yemeni journalist affects his independence and makes journalism for him or her a mission as much as a job. Calls have been raised to improve their situation, but to no avail. In addition, the current Law of Press and Publication doesnt give journalists any privileges like health care and discounts in transportation and telephone costs. The card he gets from the Ministry of Information is a sign of membership only and doesnt give any legal power.
Broadcasters state controlled Moreover, we find also that most of Yemeni society is illiterate and that most of them live in the countryside. This means that the majority of the people do not know or read newspapers. Their source of information is the radio and TV stations, which are totally monopolized by the state.
The Yemeni Constitution states in Article 41 Every citizen has the right to participate in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the country. The state shall guarantee freedom of thought and expression of opinion in speech, writing and photography within the limit of the law.
This is fine. But the Law No. (25) of 1990 for Press and Publications is full of shortcomings that constitute a major hindrance for the journalism movement in Yemen. For example, to establish a newspaper/magazine one has to get license from the Ministry of Information.
There is also a monetary restriction in starting a paper. The Minister of Informations Decree No. 9 for 1998 states that for establishing a paper or a magazine, the publishers capital should amount to YR 2 million for a daily newspaper, YR 700,000 for a Weekly paper, YR 1.2 million for a Weekly magazine and a Periodical, YR 100,000 for an Advertisement Bulletin. Therefore, one can conclude that this is one of the major constraints of the press in Yemen.
Ask the government
In addition, we find also that the law of Press and Publication imposes censorship on the substance of the press or cultural material coming from outside the country. Article No. 56 of the same law reads Any person who wishes to import any cultural material and stationery and open a cultural emporium shall obtain permission in writing from the Minister of Information prior to such activity,
b) Any person who wishes to carry on the business of import, sale, distribution and circulation of newspapers and magazines shall obtain permission in writing from the Minister of Information prior to such activity.
The law of the press, in fact, is good in comparison with similar laws in Arab countries. But the problem is with the by-law execution of the press law which was issued by the president of the Republic in 1993. This by-law doesnt explain and illustrate the law, rather it adds some legislative articles, constituting rather more forbiddings and restrictions which the Ministry of Information take as an excuse to hassle the press. It gives the excuse for journalists to start a paper and at the same time it acts as an implementation against of the law. It has intensified the act of the press and publication authority.
As we have mentioned earlier, majority of the Yemeni people are illiterate and this means that the radio and TV are still the most influential means in informing the public and shaping their opinion. However, they are still under the complete control of the state. Hence, the media is not able to create a public opinion to generate more power. This public opinion is absent and this is why the role of the media in the development drive is being marginalized.
Sanaa Declaration
Yemen co-hosted, along with the UN, UNESCO and many local and international media and NGOs, a seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Arab Media in January of 1996. This resulted in the Sanaa Declaration, which called upon all the member governments of the UNESCO and UN to promote independent and pluralistic media, and to allow private ownership of the press, radio and television. The Sanaa Declaration was later adopted as a binding document of the UNESCO by all member states including Yemen.
However, the Yemen Times had applied three years ago to start a small FM radio station in Sanaa. The Minister of Information said he was unable to act on the request as there was no law to offer guidelines to exercise this right. As such he has failed to initiate any action to enact such a law.
Meanwhile, the college of Journalism of Sanaa University applied to operate a small radio/television station to offer training facilities to its students. Again, it could not be done.
In 1999, the Rector of Science and Technology University (private) wrote to the Minister of Information to request permission to operate a small radio station for the students. Again, the Minister simply said there was no law to govern such an activity.
Freedom Constrains
The government is trying from time-to-time to harass the press through prosecuting newspapers and journalists. The main ordeal facing the newspapers, mainly the opposition and independent ones, since 1995 consists in the cases that are being filed against them by the Ministry of Information. Ironically and this is a hopeful sign we find that most of the newspapers won the cases against the Ministry of Information. However, the judiciary can be biased and, if need be, can lean to the side of the government.
Worse still, the trials of the newspapers and journalists are not done in accordance with the Press Law. Rather, they are conducted according to the Penal Code of the country. Unfortunately, the writer and correspondent of Al-Wahdawi newspaper (voice of the Nasserite Unionist Party) Jamal Amer was punished ruthlessly. The verdict the court issued in February 2000 states that Mr. Amer is forbidden from writing and he should give up the profession of journalism forever.
This is dangerous and it is the first time in which a writer is asked to stop writing forever. There is no such article in the Press Law which says that a journalist can be prosecuted in such a way. This highlights the absence of independent and fair judiciary. The Al-Asboo weekly decided to stand by the side of Mr. Amer by challenging the court decree by publishing an article by Mr. Amer. But the punishment was severe too. The government decided to confiscate that issue of Al-Asboo of February 24, 2000 and did not allow the circulation of the paper. This has been considered to be the most flagrant instance of throttling of free expression in the country.
Prosecution and closing of newspapers
Newspapers are liable to closures and arbitrary restriction in violation of local and international law.
Al-Shoura (voice of the Federation of Popular Forces), closed down since 26th September 1999, was prosecuted in August 1996, May 1997, September 1998, and March 1999.
Al-Wahdawi, mouthpiece of the Unionist Nasserite Party, was prosecuted in June 198.
The Yemen Times was accused of slander and spreading lies after publishing articles in November 1998, accusing government officials of channeling international development funds into their own bank accounts. The prosecution was dropped in July 1999 following the death of the editor-in-chief Dr. Abdulaziz al-Saqqaf in a tragic traffic accident. Dr. Saqqaf was the most important and influential defender of human rights, free press freedom and expression and democracy in Yemen.
Al-Thawri, voice of the Yemeni Socialist Party, stood in the defendants dock in January 1997 and June 1998.
A case was also filed against Al-Ray Al-Aam (Independent) in September 1998 and it was blocked several times. The last one was on 2/12/1998. Al-Ray Al-Aam office in Sanaa was bombarded by unidentified people on Sunday evening, February 20, 2000. In a statement, chief editor of the paper Mr. Al-Ulifi held the Minister of Interior responsible for the explosion.
Cases were also filed against other newspapers like Al-Sahwah (Islah party), Ray (Sons of Yemen League Party), Al-Haq, Al-Ayam.
Hassling journalists
The other major headache faced by the media in Yemen is harassment. The harassment of the independent press and journalists is not limited to threats of legal action and prosecution.
Yemen journalists, thinkers, and opinion makers are subject to different sorts of harassment. They are detained, imprisoned, beaten up and threatened. Some of the journalists are civil servants and therefore they are subject to removal from their posts or suspension of their salaries. Abdulraheem Musen of Al-Thawri and Ahmad Al-Ashwal of Al-Wahdawi are cases in point.
Not only that, journalists and international media reporters are badmouthed and even accused of being agents of international Zionism, of being mercenaries working against the interests of the country. For example, Mr. Abbas Ghalib, Chief Editor of Al-Mithaq weekly (voice of the ruling party PGC) lashed at the Arab and foreign newspapers and agencies correspondents with accusations of being spies of foreign agencies. That was on October, 1999.
As a reaction, the correspondents filed a defamation suit against Mr. Ghalib. The first hearing of this case was held in February 2000. The investigation is still going on. Some are also accused of being secessionist working against the unity of the country. Some are subject to abrupt and unusual heart attack, like Abdulhabeeb Salem Muqbil (1996), Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf (Yemen Times Chief Editor) was killed in a traffic accident in June 1999.
Several journalists were beaten up by security officers while reporting the case of Sanaa universitys ripper, Mohammed Adam Omar, Sudanese national, in May 2000. Two female journalists, Ramah Hujairah and Aida Abdulhameed were harassed and received phone threats after the same story of the Sanaa University massive killer. Althakafia weekly, was harassed because of reproducing a story Sanaa an open city for a Yemeni writer who died 25 years ago.
Its editor, Sameer Al-Yousifi was arrested for some time. The story was considered to have abused Islam.
The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) 2000 report on press freedom in Yemen says there were different sorts of violations against the press. They vary from lawsuits to torture and sometimes assassination attempts.
These violations and others trigged a lot of concern and worry about the future of the press freedom in the country.
Professionalism constraints
As we said earlier, the Ministry of Information is the authority to issue licenses for kicking off a paper or magazine. The role of the YJS is still very absent. The Ministry issues licenses to everybody despite of their being journalists or not. Most of the people running newspapers in the country are not journalists by profession. They dont look at the press as a mission and a tool of change in the society. Rather, they run them in a way similar to running shops or groceries.
In some cases newspapers are used as a means to blackmail or harass others. This has made people lose confidence in the press and its unbiased stand as a voice of the voiceless. The owners of newspapers on their part exploit journalists and still deal with them as ordinary workers and asking them to sign in and out. They dont understand what it means to work in the press.
The Ministry of Information still divides the press into three categories; government, partisan and independent. While, in fact, a press should go beyond such division. The press in general should be free despite of its affiliation or color.
The private sector has not yet started investing in the press and this is why the economic situations of the newspapers are still very poor. Some of them are seasonal. They publish in particular occasions once they are able to guarantee some ads. Some of them are family newspapers. Once the father or editor dies, his son is to replace him, regardless of his qualification or profession.
All this has disturbed the professionalism of the press in Yemen. This has made some European countries question the professionalism of the Yemen press, and look up for means to support the press in this regards as a part of supporting the drive for democracy, in which professional media is an important component. The Dutch government has already started thinking about this issue very seriously. A Dutch journalist has carried out a report on this matter to be presented to the Development Minister in the Hague. Other donor countries should think seriously to help the Yemeni press in this respect.
The ongoing battle
The above instances clearly illustrate the deeply disturbing and outrageous panorama of events concerning the press in Yemen. It is an ongoing legal battle between the Ministry of Information, on one side and the partisan and independent newspapers on the other. From this, only one can comprehend the predicament and hardships Yemeni journalists face. They have to practice giving lip service to the people in authority, otherwise they wont be able to obtain their blessing. The list presented above is enough to make one able to understand their ordeals.
Another important point that should be highlighted again is that Yemeni society is still troubled by the high rate of illiterate people, estimated roughly at 80%. In addition, most of the Yemeni population (around 87%) live in the countryside, inaccessible to newspapers coverage. This indicates that the role of newspapers in informing the people is still very limited.
Hence, the government monopoly over the TV and Radio stations should come to an end, since these two organs play a major role in shaping public opinion, particularly in the countryside. To boost its democratization further, Yemen needs the launch of free and independent electronic media. Unless the people are adequately informed, they will not be able to make decisions that have meaning in their lives.
* This paper has been presented to the New Media and Change in the Arab World Conference, held in Jordan, March 1, 2002