Yemeni female journalists challenge, impress U.S. ambassador [Archives:2008/1119/Front Page]

January 10 2008

By: Nadia Al-Sakkaf
SANA'A, Jan. 9 ) Around 30 female journalists were invited by the Women Journalists Forum for an exclusive session with the US ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche. The Jan. 7 session was the first of its kind, in which a high-ranking diplomat dedicated his time strictly to female journalists.

Despite the fact that most of the journalists had their faces covered as per traditional Yemeni customs, they displayed clear knowledge of political issues. A journalist himself, Seche acknowledged the level of professionalism the female journalists exhibited.

“I never know what to expect when I get into a room full of journalists, but being with you today, I realize how informed female journalists are and the clear understanding and concern for their country's welfare they have,” said Seche at the conclusion of the conference.

After introducing the ambassador, Rahma Hujaira, director of the Women Journalists Forum, explained that the purpose of the conference is to give female journalists a head start over their male colleagues who often get advantage in the media. US ambassador had agreed to dedicate the conference only to female journalists, and use the opportunity to introduce himself and remind the media of US policies and projects in Yemen.

The question and answer session of the conference began aggressively, when a female journalist asked the ambassador what the U.S. position is regarding Yemeni prisoners in Guantanamo and how sheikh Abdulmajeed Al-Zindani is classified according to the U.S. government. Seche explained that the U.S. wants to close down Guantanamo; however, they need to ensure that the released prisoners will not resume terrorist activities once they are back home.

“We want to return the detainees, but previous experience has told us that some of them returned to terrorist activities. We also need guarantees that the detainees will be give fair treatment,” he stated.

According to Seche, Al-Zindani is wanted by the U.S. government for financially supporting terrorist activities. Seche responded similarly to questions about Sheikh Al-Moaid, currently serving a 75-year sentence in a Colorado prison. He was charged with funding Hamas, and for conspiracy to fund Al-Qaeda. Seche explained that Al-Moaid is benefiting from the U.S. legal system and is appealing his case according to U.S. law.

“We will inform the media and public on the proceedings of this case,” he said.

Currently, Yemeni lawyer and activist Mohammed Naji Allaw is in the U.S. defending Al-Moaid. Allaw said that although the Shiekh's health is deteriorating, his spirits are high and he hopes to be able to return to Yemen soon.

Some political analysts claim that an agreement between Yemen and the U.S. can be made for Al-Moaid to be sent to Yemen in return for Yemen to hand over Jamal Al-Badawi, a Yemeni citizen currently serving a 17 year sentence, of which he has spent 5 years, for his involvement in the 2000 USS Cole bombing, in which 17 U.S. marines were killed.

In response to Seche's comments, the media reported that Yemeni Foreign Affairs Minister Abu Baker Al-Qirbi stated that the Yemeni constitution does not allow surrendering its citizens to foreign countries. He insisted that there is no way Al-Badawi would be handed over to U.S. custody.

However, Seche's answer to the same question posed by one of the female journalists at the conference was that because Al-Badawi is responsible for killing U.S. citizens, he should be tried by a U.S. court.

The journalist also asked the ambassador to clarify the security relations his government has with the Yemeni government. He replied that Yemen and the U.S. have a partnership regarding intelligence and information exchange. The U.S. supports Yemen with funding and training for the special forces, anti-terrorism unit and coast guard in order for Yemeni to secure its borders and ensure stability of the country.

“It is known that there is a an Al-Qaeda presence and extremists in Yemen who do not intend good for Yemen or Yemeni stability. The U.S. aims at helping the Yemeni government deal with such threats,” he said.

Development support

Not all the discussion revolved around Al-Qaeda and its so-called affiliates. USAID director Dr. Mike Sarhan explained that the organization supports Yemen with regard to development work, fisheries, agriculture, and most recently an on-going project in support of the Anti-Corruption Committee.

“We are supporting them in order that they establish premises for their operations, and we will be sending them to Malaysia in order for them to learn from their experience in fighting corruption,” mentioned Sarhan.

The U.S. government not only sends MPs and activists for training, it also empowers Yemeni journalists, both men and women, through media exchange programs in the U.S.

However, female journalists complained that they view the embassy's scholarship policy as biased towards men. Ryan Gliha, a public affairs officer present at the conference, explained that fewer women are sent to the U.S. because of the fact that there are few female journalists who agree to travel there on their own. This answer did not get much appreciation from the other journalists, who claimed that they would all travel if they were given the opportunity. Eventually, the embassy promised to give more consideration in their scholarships and training opportunities to females, a promise that the journalists said they would put to the test.