Yemen’s Press Freedom in Jeopardy [Archives:2001/07/Law & Diplomacy]

February 12 2001

Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi
Yemen Times
[email protected]
The question of human rights has become one of the world’s most pressing issues, of concern to everybody wherever they are. There are several international NGOs working in this field, reporting the pros and cons and ups and downs of the human rights records of various countries and of course, their role in spotlighting human rights abuses and violations is of great importance. They work like watchdogs and exercise pressure on government so as to stop such violations. In other words, the question of human rights has become a global issue that matters to everybody and governments need understand this clearly.
In Yemen, the file of human rights is not free from abuses and violations that have been observed by several international human rights NGOs. The following year 2000 human rights report from Reporters Sans Frontiers highlights some of the abuses and harassments-both legal and illegal- that press people in Yemen are going through.
It seems that the problems faced by the press in Yemen will go on for good as independent and opposition journalists are harassed ruthlessly, looked down upon and considered enemies of and agents against the “national interests of their country”. They are to be badmouthed and grouped together under various bad descriptions.
At the moment there are some newspapers being harassed and put on trial. These trials have really become a pain in the neck for editors and journalists, haunting them with the ghost and curse of self-censorship. The Al-Shumu Weekly has been recently suspended for a month and its editor fined. He is now striving to rally journalists and human rights activists to support him in overturning the verdict. He has even decided to go on hunger strike if the court does not reconsider the verdict.
The editors of Al-Umah Weekly, mouthpiece of Al-Haq Party, Al-Hikmah cultural magazine and Al-Sahwah Weekly, mouthpiece of the Islah Party, are being tried on charges related to articles and reports published in their newspapers. Al-Ayyam’s trial will be resumed soon after delays because of the editor’s health condition.
In fact, press freedom in Yemen is in jeopardy but our government officials never stop praising the “great achievements of our democracy”. They should understand that freedom of expression and the press are the main pillars of a true democracy. Democracy means having the right to be well informed and to express one’s views freely without censorship. That is to say, democracy in such a situation is mere talk that exists only in the air. In short, democracy means practice on the ground, doesn’t it?
Reporters Sans Frontiers’ 2000 Report on Yemen
Faced with serious tensions such as the kidnapping of tourists by clans and attacks by Islamist groups, the government reacts by pressurizing journalists not to mention such subjects. The methods used include tapped telephones, constant surveillance, intercepted mail, attacks by unknown assailants, insults and threats. The trials of kidnappers and presumed Islamist terrorists are held under strict police surveillance. Seven cases against journalists from the independent press have been brought this year, which amounts to effective legal harassment aimed at forcing journalists to practice self-censorship. The state retains its monopoly on all radio stations and television channels.

Journalists jailed
On 2 March Abdel-Latif Kutubi Omar, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al Haq, mouthpiece of the Opposition Children of Yemen League, was arrested for publishing an article on military cooperation between Yemen and the United States under the agreement signed in 1998 between the two countries. Abdel-Latif Kutubi Omar, also deputy secretary of the party, was released after four day’s questioning. The weekly was suspended for one month on 7 October and the journalist sentenced to a fine of 40,000 rials (300 euros).
Hisham Basharaheel, Editor-in-Chief of the independent daily Al Ayyam, received a suspended six-month jail sentence and Haitham Ali Al-Ghareeb, author of an offending article, a suspended ten-month sentence. They were accused of publishing an article “affecting national unity”, in which the system of local authorities was criticized. H. Al-Ghareeb had been in custody since 3 March. H. Basharaheel was again summoned by the police on 11 September and questioned about an interview with a religious exile in London, published in August.

Journalists arrested
Kaid Saif Noman, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al Shoura, published by the opposition Union of Popular Forces, was arrested on 23 February and released the next day without any explanation. The information minister ordered the suspension of the weekly under the pretext that another newspaper with the same title had appeared, thus contravening the press law. According to the editorial staff, the incident was staged by the authorities to enable them to ban the newspaper. After a first trial opened in may, the appeal court definitively suspended the weekly on 16 September.
Jamal Amer, a journalist with the opposition weekly Al Wahdawi, was arrested on 12 August for writing a story about the ruling family in Riyadh which was considered “harmful” to relations with Saudi Arabia. The journalist was released two days later. His trial, in which the editor-in-chief of the weekly, Abdul Aziz al-Mansub, was also charged, opened on 28 October. Following a complaint by the Information Ministry, the prosecutor accused them of a “breach of journalistic ethics by publishing false information and undermining the interests of Yemen”. Yemen and Saudi Arabia have in fact signed an agreement prohibiting their respective media from “offending a neighboring country”. On 1 January 2001 the case was still under way.

Journalists attacked
Saif Al-Hadheri, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Al Shumu’a, was severely beaten up at his home on 10 May by four masked men. He had to be taken to hospital. Saif Al-Hadheri is known for his criticism of certain members of the government.

Pressure and obstruction
The 27 February issue of the Arabic-language daily As Sharq Al Awsat published in London, containing several articles on the secret sale of weapons by Russia to Yemen, was banned throughout the country. In early March the information ministry definitively banned importation of the newspaper. In May it was back on sale.
The trial of the English-language weekly The Yemen Times, accused of “publishing false information” in an article criticizing public finances, opened on 1 June. After the death of editor-in-chief Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf in a road accident on 2 June, the charges against the newspaper were withdrawn.