YEMEN TIMES: Eight Years and Progress Continues [Archives:1999/09/Focus]

March 1 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 


Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf,
Publisher & Chief Editor, Yemen Times.
This week, the Yemen Times moves into its ninth year. The first issue came out on February 27th, 1991. In the short history of the paper, it has become an important factor in the democratization and transformation process of Yemen and the Yemeni people.
One of the questions that I have been repeatedly asked is “Why do you produce a paper in English?” I have tried to answer this question in several ways.
First, English is the language of the world, and it is the language of our present civilization. If it is not your first language, it should be your second.
Second, when the idea of the paper was developed in the second half of 1990, Yemen had a problem with the world. Given its position on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Yemen needed a channel to explain itself. We thought we would spread the word in a language that the world understands better than Arabic.
Third, there were at the time over a hundred Yemeni newspapers and magazines. So, it was difficult to see how one more Arabic paper could add anything.
As the idea was developing, I visited many well-known world newspapers. These included The New York Times, the Herald Tribune, Le Monde, and others. Then I visited much smaller papers within the region.
I finally spent several weeks with The Star, a weekly newspaper coming out of Amman. I engaged Osama Sherif, the editor and publisher of the paper, in a contract to do technology and information transfer. Thus the Yemen Times was born.
Our first location was a two-room old shack made of corrugated metal plates and cardboards. It was located in the northern outskirts of Sanaa.
We had two small classic SE Macintosh computers, which are still with us today. The total Yemen Times team was three persons – a typist/page setter, a guard/messenger, and myself. We did all the financial and administrative work. We did everything from interviews, to news-writing, to pagination to supervising printing of the paper, to distribution…. At first, we only produced 1,500 copies.
Four months down the road, we had our first advertisement. Then a few more. We employed a fourth person on the team to attend to advertising. By the end of 1991, we were selling 3,000 copies.
By mid-1992, we moved into the city. We rented a flat behind the Central Bank of Yemen.
At that time, we employed three news editors, on a part-time basis. We employed two clerks to help with administrative and financial affairs. Momentum was building.
By the end of 1992, our revenue from advertisements had surpassed revenue from the 5,000 copies we were selling.
We purchased three more Apple machines – Power Macintosh 4400/200s.
By mid-1993, we were caught in the power struggle between the People’s General Congress and the Yemen Socialist Party. The PGC did not take kindly to the Yemen Times.
Our landlord was forcing us out because of outside pressure. This was to become our problem for the next four years. As soon as the paper’s one-year lease expired, it could not get an extension. Thus we were forced to move from one location to another.
The third location was a two-storey building behind Mujahid Street, facing what is today the French Embassy. Then we moved to the basement of a large building on Haddah Road, where today Emirates Airlines is located. Finally, we moved to our present location, which we first rented, and finally purchased.
In the meantime, the Yemen Times bought newer and more advanced equipment.
The most important jump came in 1994, when the newspaper bought a number of Quadra 700, then Quadra 840 Macintosh machines. These were followed by PowerPC Macintosh 8500/150 and 9600/233 machines. These are now to be followed by G3 and iMac machines.
In the meantime, the number of journalists and employees of the newspaper had jumped to over 30 persons, with branch offices in Aden and Taiz, and stringers in six different cities of the republic.
Circulation and advertisement rose to phenomenal levels.
The Yemeni diaspora was the first international target of the paper. Therefore, the Yemen Times embarked on simultaneous printing of the paper in London and New York. This ambitious effort was very costly.
As the internet became available, the simultaneous printing was discontinued, and the Yemen Times went on-line in 1997.
The number of visitors to the Yemen Times homepage address has risen to high levels. Over the last 3 months, there were 1,350,000 visitors.
The visitors are mostly from the West – the USA, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and other countries. But there are also lots of on-line readers in India, Southeast Asia, Turkey, etc.
Diplomats assigned to Yemen, donors and other partner agencies continue to tap in. Business interests are also among the regular readers. Yemeni students abroad as the opposition in exile have been kept informed through the Yemen Times. “It is our lifeline,” one said.
The newspaper is honored by the commitment of its readership base. A survey of our readers indicated that the paper’s policy of “calling the shots as we see them” has gained it the respect and sympathy of the Yemeni public.
It is often cited by the international media and visiting journalists and delegations as the most credible and reliable source in Yemen.
In addition, the Yemen Times and its chief editor were honored by the Washington DC-based International Press Club with the International Freedom of the Press Award for 1995.
The Yemen Times was also the main partner of the UNESCO and the UN in organizing the Arab region’s media conference of 1996, leading to the Sanaa Declaration on Independent and Pluralistic Media.
It also made it to the short-list of the UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Award for this year – 1998/9.
Even though the Yemeni public and the international community express their support, the Yemeni authorities have not seen the paper’s work in the same light.
Between 1994 and 1997, the chief editor of the Yemen Times was imprisoned seven times, albeit for short periods of time because of the public uproar. The editor was beat up twice. The paper was shut down once, and it was subjected to various forms of harassment. These included cutting off all communication lines, electric lines, tapping telephones, censoring mail, intimidation, name calling, accusations ranging from national and high treason to being agents of the USA, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc…
Advertisers were discouraged openly, and the state media has embarked on many verbal assaults.
The Yemen Times, after securing and expanding its own premises, now has plans for expansion on three fronts. These are:
1. Al-Aswaq:
The paper plans to issue an Arabic magazine called Al-Aswaq. Preparations for this are in full progress.
Al-Aswaq will focus on economic issues.
2. Printing Press:
The Yemen Times has started negotiations to purchase its own printing press. This is a costly investment, but necessary for continued progress. This is a project that will mature before the end of this year.
3. Yemen Times FM:
Our final investment is a radio station. Application has already been to the Minister of Information last year. He says that some legal adjustments need to be made in the laws to allow the private sector to own radio and television stations.
We hope this project will see light by the year 2000.
The legal and political environment needs to improve steadily for the Yemeni media to continue to make progress. The obsession of the politicians to control every journalist is a danger that could jeopardize our democratic transformation and multi-party political structure.