China to the rescue (of Internet freedom in Yemen)



 
A Chinese computer program is helping web surfers in Yemen break through government control of the Internet. It is part of a bigger trend by journalists and activists who are beginning to challenge Internet censorship in Yemen.
 
By RASHAD AL-SHAR’ABI
 
yemen internet
An Internet cafe in Sana'a: opposition to government control of the Internet in Yemen is growing. R.R.

SANA'A, July 2, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Imagine a journalist having to use a special program in order to access the website of the very newspaper he works for.

Sound daunting? Well, for Yemeni journalist Waddah al Maktari it is as normal as it is for a Western journalist to make a cup of coffee before sitting down to read his or her newspaper.

Waddah works for the independent news portal Yemenat, and lately he has been raving about a new Chinese program that can break through any official restrictions on website access.

In fact, if anyone within ear shot of Maktari says they are unable to read Yemenat's articles, he will immediately launch into a tutorial about the program.

But he won't give us the name of the new Chinese program.

He doesn't want the Yemeni government to catch on to a program which helps him circumvent the restrictions placed on his own and seven other similar sites.

For now, word of mouth will have to do.

A multi-front battle
 
According to Waddah, the new technology fits in neatly with what he calls a rising tide of popular discontent about the Yemeni government's attempts to control the Internet. He also points to demonstrations in South Yemen over the government's continued crackdown on the press.

Indeed, there is a battle occurring between Waddah's peers and the government monopoly over Yemen's two internet providers, Yementel and Teleyemen. 

Through these two companies, the Yemeni government has put blocks on all websites publishing news about the war in the north between the army and Shia Muslim rebels. A recent escalation in the fighting in the north has put the government in a very defensive position, and any domestic news site depicting the situation in a way that differs even slightly from the government-run or pro-government news outlets is being banned.

Ironically, the regulations used by the Yemeni authorities to ban critical websites were originally meant to target pornography sites.

But that was before the 2006 presidential elections.
 
It was around that time that Yemen's Communication Ministry began to ban opposition or independent newspaper websites like al-Nas (The People), al-Majles al-Yamani (The Yemenite Council), Sawt al-Yaman (The Voice of Yemen), Hiwar (Dialogue), and Montada al-Moustaqila (The Independent Forum). Two more opposition news sites, affiliated with al-Shura and the Socialist Party, were also blocked.

It was a modern version of the same press restrictions that have prompted demonstrations by journalists and activists in Yemen for the last 20 years. 

Local groups fight back

Sources put the number Yemeni websites inside Yemen that have been banned at 15 news websites and an unknown number of blogs and on-line forums.

Eight newspaper websites were recently banned: alshurra.net, al-mustakilla, al-umma, yemen net, shamsan news, al-taghyyyir, yamanat and al-hadath.

Over the last month, the Sana'a-based freedom of expression group, "The Change and the Defense of Rights and Freedoms Organization" said it intended to file a lawsuit against the Communication Ministry because of what it contends are baseless reasons for the banning of so many websites.

Parliamentary activist Ahmad Seif Hashed heads the organization. Hashed is also the publisher of Yemenat, the e-newspaper site Wahhad works for.

Hashed said his organization would not have considered a lawsuit had the popular support not been in place. 

According to Hashed, the government's amendments to the 1990 Press and Publications Law have been primarily used to restrict e-media freedom. Critics like Hashed say these controls are meant to reign in the emerging new media, and bring them under the same kind of control the Yemeni government exercises over the traditional print media.

Waddah's crusade

But Waddah remains optimistic about the future.

"I am confident that we will continue to be successful at breaking the government's blocking attempts," he said.

Other aspects of the emerging new media in Yemen worry him though.

"That the two Internet providers in Yemen are both controlled by the government is worrying," he said. "And there is the fact that there are still very few people in Yemen who have access to the Internet at all. Many even lack the electricity to even run a computer."

Official statistics show that the number of internet users in Yemen at the end of 2006 was about 150,000 users in a country of more than 22 million. But statistics say that number is growing significantly given that there are more than 800 Internet cafes throughout Yemen.