'Until they're sick of it'

The blocking of YemenPortal and other websites has led Yemen's Internet news community to come up with an innovative system to circumvent state censorship, explains Walid Al-Saqaf.
yemen internet
An Internet café in Sana'a. © Naci Yavuz

In recent months, at least eight news websites in Yemen have been blocked within the country by the public internet service provider, operated by the Ministry of Telecommunications. The authorities have not offered any explanation as to why the websites have been blocked, but in an interview with APN, Walid Al-Saqaf, founder of YemenPortal.net, the country's first news crawler and one of three websites blocked on 19 January, claims it is an act of censorship.

APN:  Do you know why your website was blocked?

"I wasn't given any specific answer despite my inquiries. All I got from the Ministry of Telecommunication was a denial of their responsibility. I did, however, learn from reliable sources that it is the national security apparatus that sent directives to the ministry to block access for residents of Yemen. The source said that the authorities were not happy with some of the articles on the website and that they harm 'national security' as they were related to the rebel fighting in the north of Yemen and the growing discontent and separatist calls in the south. But to be clear, I am yet to receive an official confirmation of the ban and the reasons behind it."

APN : How would you describe Yemen Portal?

W.A.: "
Yemen Portal is the first specialized multi-lingual news aggregator in Yemen, and as far as I know the Arab world as well. It crawls more than a thousand sources and fetches material from news websites, discussion forums, blogs and video sites. The purpose is to provide the visitor with a comprehensive and up-to-date news and opinion content related to Yemen. It is a media project that I initiated as part of my master's degree in Global Journalism at the Örebro University in Sweden. The aim was to raise awareness of events in and views on the region, to study the Yemeni news cybersphere and measure the impact of online journalism on politics in Yemen. The blocking of the website confirms to me that the impact of online journalism is on the rise in Yemen and that the government has resorted to blockages in an attempt to suppress some views and news."

APN: How many visitors does Yemen Portal attract?

W.A.: "
Since its establishment in May 2007, the number of visitors to Yemen Portal has grown by leaps and bounds since it provides an opportunity to learn about the latest news and views minute by minute without having to visit individual websites. But it has also brought the views and news from websites that are banned in Yemen because of their political views and coverage. This was a neutrality requirement, that the website gives a chance to news and views from all perspectives to be displayed to the public in Yemen and the world without any distinctions or filtering. Just before the website was banned, Google statistics showed that the number of daily visits was between two and three thousand."

APN: What are the prospects now the site has been blocked ?

W.A.: "
Yemen Portal has benefited the news website community in Yemen tremendously because it has allowed for them to share the space and attention of thousands of visitors. Therefore, after the blockage, there was an assembly with more than a couple of dozen representatives from those websites, during which they declared their solidarity and supported an initiative to push the government to lift the ban.

"This initiative is called 'the anti-website blocking initiative,' and it basically means that we have established our own websites at http://blockedarabiaportal.net/yemen, through which Internet users in Yemen would be able to bypass the filtering system... and be able to read the content of banned websites from the main pages of the campaign website.

"Every time the government blocks the Yemen Portal website, a new domain will be created and the link will be disseminated to member websites and email subscribers. This way the government will have to catch up continuously, until it's sick of it, which we hope will push them to giving up and allowing the information to reach all citizens across the country. It is a new initiative and if it succeeds, we hope to replicate it in other Arab countries as well."

Click here to go to the campaign website. YemenPortal.net's alternative website is at http://yemen.arabiaportal.net.

This article was republished with permission from The Arab Press Network (APN), a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).