Yemen’s Press freedom tops discussion themes at Al-Ahmar Forum [Archives:2005/899/Local News]

December 1 2005

NewsYemen- Sanaa: The issue of press freedom was the focal point of discussion during last Monday's session at the Forum of Abdullah bin Hussein Al-Ahmar in Sanaa.

The meeting, which was attended by powerful Sheikhs, officials, diplomats, and prominent personalities, witnessed a debate about the situation and future of journalists and media in general.

While some members of the ruling party, tribal sheikhs and members of the Shoura Council defended strict measures regulating the press, some called for easing restrictions on journalists and went to the level of demanding the authorities to abolish the Ministry of Information and allow non-governmental TV and radio stations to emerge.

Among those reformists was member of Shoura Council Ali Lutf Al-Thowr who said that the press and publications law needs to be updated regularly, hoping that the new press law would arrive to the parliament soon for debate and approval.

Al-Thowr said that it is no longer important to have a ministry for information as the world has become a global village and information has become easily accessible through different means of technology. He said, “We hope that satellite TV channels would be established to provide a platform where opinions and counter opinions could coexist.”

Yemeni journalist Ahmed Abdulrahman Qarhash agreed with this view noting that freedom of the press is a right not a privilege, yet the law had imposed restrictions on it, not regulations. He stressed on the necessity to allow free electronic media to emerge.

Another Shoura Council member Ahmed Al-Salami said that by referring to courts to try journalists and not attempting to use its security might, the government is doing the right thing, yet he noted that “the Ministry of Information has no reason to exist and has no mission other than to obstruct the freedom of expression.”

“I believe that reaching to the courts for justice is a good step taken by the government. It is much better than beating or kidnapping journalists. Such acts could only be carried out by the mafia.” Qarhash said.

Concerning new proposals to change some penalty regulations in the press law from imprisonment to financial compensation, Qarhash asked “how could you fine an already broke journalist?”

He said “I believe the pressing issue now is not to adjust the press law but to have a comprehensive reform program that has priority over everything else.”

Meanwhile, a view opposing press freedom was also strongly present in the forum. Yahya Qahtan, a member of Shoura Council, defended regulations that restrict freedom of expression and he based his opinion on Islamic sharia from Quran and Sunna. He even called for applying Islamic punishments on journalist who violate the law, among those means of punishment, he preferred 'old-fashion whipping'.

Sharaf Al-Fodai, a leading figure in Islah Islamic party, said the government is adjusting the press law to protect itself from journalists and not the contrary. “In the meantime, there is no one protecting the public from journalists.” He called for developing more severe punishments on journalists violating the press law and called for stricter conditions for individuals seeking to be journalists. Among the conditions he suggested was to be at least 25 years old before applying for a journalism-related post.

Omani ambassador present in the discussion, Abdullah Al-Badi, said that there is apparent confusion between print and electronic media. He noted that each should have its own regulations. “We are all with freedom. But when it comes to defaming others, this is wrong. The insult could even extend to the neighbors. Hence it is vital to regulate this freedom.” He compared the situation in the Arab world to that in the West and said that press laws in Western countries have been adopted to match their needs, however “we have our religious heritage and that comes first, before their press laws.”

Yunus Hazza', the head of the political department of the General People's Congress accused journalists of terrorizing the public. He said that journalists are terrorizing citizens and terrifying investors from investing in Yemen. However, he added that a democratic nation could only exist if it has free media and an independent judiciary.

Mohamed Al-Tayyib, the head of the Human Rights and Civil Society Committee of the Shoura Council diplomatically defended press freedom noting that it is the pillar in any democracy. He said that any adjustments to the press law would probably not take Yemen backward.

“All, including the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, should participate in molding the new press law to make it in its best form. There should be policies regulating press freedom and that is the case in many developed democratic countries.” he said.

Yasser Al-Awadhi of the GPC said that there is certainly shortage in professionalism among Yemeni journalists, but he added “I cannot talk about the freedom of the press unless there is freedom of the media in general.”

He hinted that the upcoming Seventh Assembly meeting scheduled for next month in Aden would tackle reforms in the press law and may even suggest canceling the Ministry of Information altogether.

The forum continued with a diversity of opinions all focusing on press freedom, which has suffered tremendously in recent months as more than five major attacks against journalists were carried out in 2005, causing concern among reformists in the country and pro-democracy international organizations abroad.