Yemen Times Participates in the International Seminar: The Right to Know: human rights, censorship and access to Information [Archives:2000/08/Law & Diplomacy]

January 21 2000

During 6-11 February, a Seminar co-organized by the British Council and the Article 19 Organization was held in Oxford, UK with the title of The Right to Know: human rights, censorship and access to information. Yemen was represented in the seminar by the Chief Editor of Yemen Times, Walid Al-Saqqaf who brought several important issues and concerns about the freedom of expression and access to information in Yemen. 
The British Council through the International Networking Events is among the most active establishments in the UK in organizing seminars about various issues that are of great importance, especially to developing countries. It has been quite clear from the messages and invitations we get to attend seminars all over the world from the British Council in Yemen that it is indeed among the most active British Council Branches in the world. 
The seminar was organized and administrated by several qualified and prominent figures in the field of freedom of expression and information. Several representatives and key figures in the Article 19 Organization gave speeches and commented on the seminar issues. Among these were: 
-Andrew Puddephat, Executive Director, Article 19 (See interview in this issue) 
-Toby Mendel, Head of the Law Program, Article 19 
-Katherine Huxtable, Press Officer, Article 19 
-Fiona Harrison, Head of Europe Program, Article 19 
-Dr. John Lunn, Africa Program, Article 19 
There was also a wide range of intellectuals from international organizations (Amnesty International, Commonwealth Press Union) media organs such as the famous Guardian, academic and local foundations (University of Oxford, Stephens Innocent Solicitors, Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth) journalists from the Guardian newspaper, and other intellectuals, advisors, and professors. 
The seminar discussed several issues, among them were extremely important issues and sample cases that could be of great importance, especially to countries with transitional democracies like Yemen. These topics were: 
– The right to know under international law 
– Legislating for Freedom of Information 
– Principles regarding freedom of information legislation including access to information in situations of armed conflict 
– The environment and access to information 
– Freedom of information and the media as a public watchdog 
– Insult and defamation laws and international standards on the protection of sources 
– National security, access to information and protection of sources from journalists viewpoint 
– The legal framework, role and function of public service broadcasting 
– Media monopolies and the publics right to know 
– The Internet and freedom of information: Regulation, self-regulation or no regulation? 
– Internet service providers: law and practice 
– International, regional and domestic Internet regulation: case, contradictions and trends 
– The right to truth: Access to information and accounting for past human rights violations 
With regards to freedom of expression and the right to know, Yemens representative, Walid Al-Saqqaf said, Yemen is a country  going through a democratic transition. We have undergone a lot of difficulties in implementing more open environments for the press and the public to speak its mind. After the Unity of Southern and Northern Yemen in 1990, the leadership adopted a multi-party democratic system. The system enabled parties to ground their own mouthpiece newspapers, and in a record time resulted in the birth. The right to know is a vital right for every human being. It should be thought as a right that should not be requested, it is something that comes automatically in any democratic system. After the free press phenomenon began spreading among people, several strong critical issues were brought in the press in a blunt and strong matter. This is what we should expect in such conditions. Everyone has the right to speak , and the public has the right to be adequately informed and know what is going on. 
However, sadly speaking, the government was not so flexible recently as it used to be before the 1994 civil war. There are several newspapers that have been closed because of the war, and there were several newspapers that stood trial. One of these newspapers is Yemen Times. However, in time, the government realized that in fact free speech is in its favor and not against it. It shows it how to operate, it explains to it its points of weakness in order to correct them, and it also operates as a public watch dog that plays a major role in identifying corrupt people and pinpoints the mistakes the government makes. 
Legislating for Freedom of Information 
Al-Saqqafs point of view focused on legislative problems related to freedom of expression. He asserted  the fact that legislating concerning access to information if needed, must be implemented in a way that secures a independent, just, and relatively flexible legislation that while granting the public access to information, should not interfere in private issues of citizens. Freedom of expression should not be thought of as an extra privilege, it is a right of every Yemeni citizen. Over the years, we realized that the government does not always say the truth. Hence, without freedom of expression, no one would be able to convey the facts to the public in the appropriate manner.  Our role  as Yemen Times should be a public watchdog, which must always deliver the facts as they are whether for or against the government. The freedom of expression cannot be obtained unless the government realizes that having it is a vital step towards a truly democratic system, he added. 
Media Monopoly and Globalization 
He also commented on the monopoly that still exists over the electronic media, including TV and radio broadcasting, and the Internet. Al-Saqqaf explained that media monopoly is a method used in some dictatorships to control the flow and type of information that reaches most of the population. He said, In the case of Yemen, where most of the people are illiterate, the main source of information is usually TV and radio. Hence, when controlling and filtering the information broadcasted in these two quite influential instruments, the state has in fact controlled access to information in general. Nowadays, we are living in a world which is going through extreme globalization which is slowly degrading the importance of geographical borders between nations. The technology of satellite TV transmission for instance, has enabled the people even in the rural areas to know what is happening in their country from a TV channel located outside the country before getting the information from the national TV itself. This has caused a lot of humiliation to national TV channels which makes it clear the uselessness of hiding very important information from the public while this information has become available all over the world, and has been accessed by most of the population. 
Yemens Experience 
Being the only participant from Yemen, Walid Al-Saqqaf gave a complete idea of Yemens experience in the civil war of 1994, and how Yemen Times was able to deliver up to date and serious information to the public. In the first issue after the war, Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, published a first page story about the estimated casualties in the first few days of the 1994 civil war. However, he was not taken for granted. He was taken from his home by political security forces to prison where he stayed for a short time. After he was released, he wrote down all his experience at the night the forces took him, which in itself, was a strong indication that violence against journalists does not always prevent the facts from reaching the public. Yemen Times continues today to seek for the truth and reports on it, no matter what the consequences. The media in general has suffered a lot from the ups and downs that the country went through during and after the 1994 civil war. Today, we feel that the leadership has understood the role of the media and hence, is giving more room for opposing thoughts and writings. This in fact is in the countrys interest. It is better to know about problems in governmental offices and try to solve them instead than hiding them under the carpets until they accumulate until they can not be solved. 
The seminar also included several speeches and comments from representatives of African countries who went through similar experiences. They hailed Yemens experience in establishing a free press while all neighboring countries did not. 
Insult and defamation laws and international standards on the protection of sources 
The rulings of courts for reasons of defamation in Yemen have resulted in the suspension and closure of several newspapers. Among these newspapers, is Al-Shoura that until today remains closed. Regarding this particular case, Al-Saqqaf said, We know that there are problems and difficulties faced in any democratic transformation, however it is also reasonable to ask for more just trials for journalists and newspapers for reasons of defamation. Closing such an important resource of information is a direct violation of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says, Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Being one of the countries that signed this declaration and accepted it, Yemen should try its utmost to implement it. The government should not prevent the readers from accessing information that is available in any newspaper. We do hope that it would back down and have the newspaper function again. 
Despite the fact that the press law in Yemen is quite efficient and more than many other laws in the region, flexible, yet the problem is not in the law itself, but rather in implementing it. Defamation and insult related articles are available in the law but they are often misinterpreted depending on the mood of the government. If an article in a publication is seen by the government to be insulting or defaming, then regardless of whether their assumption is true or not, it usually files a lawsuit against the writer and publication. This reaction of the government needs to be less strict, as this would cause several writers to write in a mile and less credible way when thinking of possible consequences when writing the simplest critique of the state. 
The Internet and freedom of information 
The Internet has with no doubt become an important and focus point in the third day of the seminar. In regards to the Internet, Mr. Walid Al-Saqqaf complained of the monopoly exerted in Yemen by the government in providing Internet services only through one company (Teleyemen). The monopoly in Internet services has resulted in high prices, low quality, more traffic on lines, and most important of all, the use of firewalls. A firewall is a method to prevent users from accessing certain sites depending on their addresses and contents for political or ethical reasons. However, at least providing the Internet services in itself is a good point for the government. A few countries still forbid the use of the Internet because it is well known that it is impossible to censor or control its contents. Thank God Yemen is not among them. Still we need to bring this monopoly to an end by constructive means. Countries like Jordan, Egypt, and UAE have opened the way for private Internet Service Providing (ISP) companies, and even encouraged them. Because of the high prices of the only ISP in Yemen, thousands of Yemenis are depraved from this useful service and resource of information. Yemen needs to follow their steps and bring about a private competing ISP for the benefit of the people and to enable them to get the most of this new technology. 
At the end of the seminar, Yemen Times editor gave a concluding statement full of optimism and hope that Yemen will continue to work on the same path of democracy, and would give more importance to the field of freedom of express