Who needs an Information Minister anyway?

When Yemen's Information Minister revoked the license of the weekly newspaper al-Awsat, he sparked such indignation among the country's journalists that some are demanding that the Information Ministry be canceled altogether.
Yemen, Sana'a.  'Black list' of press freedom violators. © AFP
Tawakkol Karman, head of Women Journalists without Chains, reads a 'black list' of Yemeni officials who have violated press freedom during a rally in August 2007. © AFP

SANA'A, April 11, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The future of independent journalism in Yemen is being decided in various courtrooms in the capital Sana'a this month.

At al-Wasat newspaper, the editorial team is anxiously awaiting a verdict by the Amana court to revise a draft law which could cancel or freeze a recent decision by the Information Minister to cancel the newspaper's license.

Meanwhile, the criminal court in Sana'a has set a date for the trial of the so-called "Sana'a cell," in which the renowned journalist Abdul Kareem al-Khiwani stands accused of terrorism. A ruling is expected on April 24.

The Information Ministry's decision to cancel the license of the weekly Al-Wasat has sparked a wave of indignation among Yemen's journalists.

At a demonstration organized by the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate last Sunday, journalists called for Information Minister Hassan al-Lawzi to step down or even to cancel the Information Ministry altogether.

According to Said Thabet, deputy chairman of the Syndicate, "the latest draft law is dangerous escalation [of government interference] in the press." Thabet pointed out that the Information Ministry does not by law have the authority to cancel newspaper licenses; ts function being purely administrative.

Jamal Amer, al-Wasat's publisher and editor in chief, is eagerly awaiting the court's decision. "I don't know what the outcome will be," he told MENASSAT, "I can only hope that [the court] will cancel the Ministry decision because it goes directly against the Press and Publication Law in Yemen."

Amer said that the Ministry's decision was "strictly political" and that the Ministry has to legal right to take such a decision.

The Information Ministry justified its decision by pointing to a series of articles in which al-Awsat allegedly "advertised separatism and harmed the supreme interests of the state."

Meanwhile, Internet journalists in Yemen are trying to stay one step ahead of government censorship.

Yemen's leading news website, Yemen Portal, has just launched its fourth alternative portal, http://yemenportal.net, after the government banned three earlier proxy sites.

Yemen Portal's manager, Walid al-Saqaf, said his team was working with new technology to better circumvent the government's efforts to stop access to the site.

"We are working to counter the new banning technology used by the Yemeni government with a special program that is still being developed, and we ask all our supporters to join us and add this program when it is launched," al-Saqaf said.

International press freedom groups, Article 19 in London and the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York among them, issued a stern warning last month against the increasing government censorship in Yemen.

Ironically, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared March 19 the National Day for Yemeni press at the occasion of the launching of two new official satellite TV channels.

Yemen's audiovisual media are still firmly in government, which has spawned the establishment of independent satellite channels in Egypt and the U.K., aimed at a Yemeni audience.

Observers have said the recent crackdown on press freedom is a result of the government's growing awareness of the independent media's role in raising awareness among Yemen's citizens.

MP Ali Ashal, who belongs to the opposition Islah party, has denounced the government's press policy as "a revolt against the narrow margin of democracy in Yemen."

The Yemeni Parliament has summoned the Prime Minister and the Information Minister to explain the reasons for canceling the license of al-Wasat.