Press freedom as seen from inside a Yemeni cell

Mohammed Al-Asaadi reflects on the state of press freedom in Yemen from inside his prison cell.
Mohammed Al-Asaadi, Correspondent
Yemen, journalist Saeed Thabet in prison © Mohammed al-Qadhi
Journalist Saeed Thabet was arrested in 2004 for publishing rumors about a possible coup d'etat in Yemen. © Mohammed al-Qadhi

SANAA - On the fourth day of my imprisonment in Yemen for reprinting three small, obscured drawings of the Danish caricatures assumed to depict the prophet Mohammed, I began to think about the real reasons behind my arrest.

I had never believed the stated reasons - that I had committed an offence against the prophet and was therefore an irresponsible journalist.

And yet my arrest was so surprising, and the sudden change in my life so alarming, that I hadn't had time to think about the true reasons I found myself behind bars, where I ultimately spent 12 days.

I remembered what the prison security chief told my visiting colleagues - that I was being held for my own safety. There were fears that fanatics would cause trouble.

In the Yemen Observer's February 1, 2006, editorial, we had called for tolerance and shifting people's attention to local issues rather than irrelevant ones. Apparently there were some out there who couldn't tolerate such a proposal - or who found a good opportunity to punish freedom of the press under the name of God.

I also remembered that many lawyers and legal advisers said the prosecutor's decision to jail me - and the Ministry of Information's decision to revoke the license of our newspaper - were clear violations of the constitution. But who cared?

Yemen is governed according to the whims of powerful people who can do whatever they like, regardless of the written laws. No one really understands what this means, and how such a situation makes a mockery of the idea of a free press.

Press freedom in Yemen has been sharply declining. Freedom House indicated Yemen was "partly free" in its 2005 report, but "not free" in 2006.

Steps toward democracy

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, according to the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report of 2005. However, it has shown some genuine steps toward democratization, putting it ahead of neighboring countries in the region.

The reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 gave birth to a possible democracy. However, in a tribal society such as Yemen, the mentality of one-man power - and the absence of the rule of law and good governance - are dominant.

The violations by the government in my case, and in so many media-related cases, affirm that there are real problems in our political system. The judiciary is not independent. Living and working in such an environment is dangerous.

The constitution provides for public and press freedoms and respect for human rights, and there has been slow progress in the past 16 years. The 2006 presidential election, for instance, was judged by international observers as the first competitive presidential election in the region where media played a significant role.

Yemen, with all its problems, is far better than many countries in the region because people at least can speak out against irregularities. They are not heeded, but they are able to say what they want.

Self-censorship common

In a nation of 21 million people there are about 170 newspapers and magazines, most in the capital, Sana'a. TV and radio outlets are still under government control. Print media in Yemen are either governmental, affiliated to political parties or privately owned.

The government and political party newspapers rarely present quality journalism because they are busy accusing each other.

Online media are booming, and those lacking money or a license to start a newspaper tend to start electronic news outlets.

Most newspapers and magazines in Yemen cover politics, but readership remains very small. Half the population is illiterate, and the same percent is below the poverty line.

A 1990 press law criminalized criticism of the head of state that is not "constructive." It also banned publication of "false information" that might spread "chaos and confusion in the country," "false stories intended to damage Arab and friendly countries”, and anything against culture, tradition or religion.

A journalist can be jailed under the law for up to a year. Journalists sometimes disobey, reporting courageously and facing the consequences.

The press prosecutor is among the busiest workers in local courts. In addition, the Ministry of Information grants or withholds licenses of newspapers according to the law. Self-censorship created by the government and the tradition grows every day.

A new draft press law has been debated for the past three years, but there is little progress. The draft law responded to the promises of the president to remove jail sentences, instead replacing them with huge fines. Those unable to pay would go to jail.

The United Kingdom-based "Article 19" organization is working with local media organizations and probably the government to produce a new law that meets international standards.

Meeting the challenge

Practicing professional journalism in Yemen is a challenge, and few of the 1,000 registered journalists can be described as free and independent.

Journalists who realized they were being used by either the opposition or the regime revolted and started their own outlets, providing fair and balanced reporting most of the time.

In 2005, an influential sheik reportedly mailed a letter bomb to a reporter who wrote about the sheik's abuse of the human rights of his tribe. The explosive left minor injuries on the journalist's face and hands.

Editor Jamal Amer, a Committee to Protect Journalists 2006 Award winner, was kidnapped late one night in 2005 and taken blindfolded to a mountainous area, where he was beaten, urinated on and threatened with being thrown down the mountain if he continued reporting about corruption. The kidnappers also threatened to harm his children if he did not stop.

The law provides for access to information, but in reality journalists can be intimidated and harassed if they apply or ask for information - especially about things like government spending, corruption, the military, security, terror suspects or international treaties. Access to information remains one of the strongest challenges for the media in Yemen.

Another challenge lies in the journalists who are sponsored either by the opposition or the government. They harm the profession more than the outsiders. They are trained to blackmail officials, politicians, businessmen and even independent journalists. They present an ugly image of the press and provide justification to the government to further oppress it.

An encouraging development is that there are many journalists working hard to present outstanding coverage of news and current events against all odds. I like to nickname these individuals - together with many other political activists and even young entrepreneurs - as the founding fathers of Yemen.

Professional and academic support to Yemeni journalists is desperately needed. They need also to learn how to establish professional and moral ethics and work accordingly.

A promising future

Yemen is passing through a crucial time, babysitting and sometimes holding back its young democracy.

It is obvious that the transition from a traditional and tribal autocracy to a democracy is not simple and is accompanied with a lot of ups and downs.

People in Yemen are learning that they have a certain amount of freedom and are no longer entirely controlled by the whims of the autocratic regimes and powerful nobles who govern them.

Last year's elections raised public awareness and taught people that freedom and democracy can be a safeguard for Yemen.

We are moving forward, although not quickly enough. It takes time to figure out how this new found freedom will work and how far it will go.

Given the passion of its founding fathers for positive change, I imagine Yemen becoming a role model of real democracy in the region. Much is still disappointing, but definitely the future will be better and brighter.

Mohammed Al-Asaadi is the managing editor of the monthly news magazine Yemen Today. This article was first published on June 4, 2007 on