Journalists in Yemen: Government is trying to destroy independent press

Last month, as tensions in Southern Yemen heightened, so did the government's attack on independent press, banning 7 newspapers that reported on the issue. Yet those affected refuse to back-down to pressure, saying the government will fail in breaking independent media in the country. Mona Safwan reports.
Yemeni government targets media reporting on tension in south Yemen. © Reuters.

SANA'A, May 21, 2009 (MENASSAT) - For the last few weeks, the local press in Yemen has been fighting a government crackdown, including a ban by the Information Ministry of at least seven newspapers from publishing.

The ban comes at a time when the tension in the south of Yemen escalated to clashes between security forces and residents.
In response, the government suspended newspapers that discussed the matter, accusing them of spreading separatist thoughts.

Meanwhile, the independent papers defended their right to cover the events, and some such as Aden-based independent dailies Al-Ayyam and Al-Nida' dedicated a lot of coverage to the abuses by the government against those involved in the struggle in the south.

The ban, still not lifted, has caused those affected to question the role of the Journalists' syndicate in challenging the government's actions. 

Syndicate should have done more

When Al-Nida’ found out about the ban, the team wrote a letter to the syndicate asking them to carry out their duties and try to put an end to the ban.

Saed Thabet, the second head of the syndicate, said that the Information Ministry ignored their calls and never responded to the messages they left.
Yet, the General Secretary of the Syndicate admitted to some reluctance on the syndicate's end in protesting the government’s decision, due to the relations some of the board members, including the head of the syndicate, have with the authorities.

"It is not a secret that the board and the management of the syndicate include members of national media institutions and different political parties. This is clear and obvious," he stated.

Journalist Marwan Damaj, who is also a member said, "Yes, there is some leniency and lack of readiness. The head of the syndicate said out in the open that he rejects the abuse of the press, but that was not enough. This doesn’t mean that we support the position of the government. We are not governmental employees to do what they want. The head of the syndicate, even if he belongs to an official institution, can’t act as a governmental employee."

While some suggest the syndicate should file a suit in court to force the government to reverse the decision,  Damaj said this option is difficult.

"I don’t understand, are we the ones suffering from abuse or are we defending those who are? The abused newspapers should file a complaint, then, we at the syndicate would help in every way possible, whether financially or legally."

Al-Ayyam abandoned

Along with being censored, Al-Ayyam employees were also victims of police violence.

On May 13, one person was killed and three were wounded when police moved in to arrest Al-Ayyam’s editor-in-chief Bashrahil Hisham Bashrahil at the paper’s headquarters, while families, including children, were in the vicinity. 

Bashrahil, told MENASSAT, that the regime’s abuse of power is not a solution.

“The problem will not be solved with live ammunition and tear gas.”

He expressed his sorrow towards the current situation and pointed out the importance of mediation.

“We are waiting for the establishment of a mediation committee to make the adequate efforts to stop the abuses and start a dialogue. We support a dialogue.”

Bashrahil said Al-Ayyam felt abandoned and isolated from any support from organizations, including the syndicate, which issued a statement denouncing what happened. Bashrahil thanked them for the statement, but said he wished they could do more.

“We hope that the syndicate directs an urgent message to the President, for he is the only one capable of stopping the abuses and attacks.”

When asked whether or not the President is aware of what is happening, Bashrahil said he does not know.

Concerning whether Al-Ayyam will take the legal approach, he said there is a mediation committee in the making, which should be responsible of such issues in media rights.

Sami Ghaleb, editor in chief of al-Nida’, hopes that the syndicate’s board, headed by Yassin al-Massoudi, will make the needed effort to stop the targeting of his newspaper, which, he said, is causing tremendous emotional and financial damages to the newspaper, its editors and writers.

The Information Ministry accused Al-Nida’ and the other banned newspapers of inciting instability in Yemen, attacking its independence and safety, and encouraging armed battles and sectarian confrontations.

"These are serious accusations which will affect public opinion and jeopardize our personal safety as journalists," Ghaleb said, explaining that his newspaper and other independent newspapers are being targeted in this political crisis, especially since they are not supported by parties or political institutions.

"An-Nida’  has been covering  the situation in the south for three years along with the rest of Yemen. If we are being accused of being separatists, while we hold on to the national unity and the constitution, this is a serious accusation from those who choose media censorship before unity. So the question is, who is the separatist here?"

Government censorship doomed to fail

When the government, represented by the Information Ministry, entered into a conflict with the independent press, it lost its credibility in defending freedom of expression. And despite the government’s actions the head of the syndicate met with the ministry and the prime minister when the ban decision was issued.

During the meeting, officials said that the ban was lifted and that there were no political reasons to ban the newspapers from publishing. Later, the journalists were surprised to know that the ban still stands.

“We no longer trust the government which is trying to blame printing houses when we know they gave the orders. This ban is the worst since 1990, for the matter is bigger than just a ban. This is about having faith in our government and in democracy. It is obvious that some officials don’t believe we live in a democracy. They think democracy is a joke, and could be taken back by an administrative procedure,” Damaj said.

The General Secretary of the Syndicate is not taking the ban lightly either.

“This matter is not spontaneous and there is an unexpressed tendency to destroy the free press. The government appears to have had enough of the press and its freedoms. This situation is dangerous and we warn of it. It is bigger than we thought. It is a real threat to freedom of expression. We are not optimistic and don’t trust the governmental intentions.”

But the government doesn’t think its practices are an abuse of freedom of expression, since, according to officials at the Information Ministry, these newspapers abused the law by spreading news inciting sectarianism.

Middle East coordinator of the International Federation for Journalists, Mounir Zaarour, said that the real threat facing the press in Yemen is the presence of officials who don’t believe in democracy and the targeting of a press in a country that still has some independent newspapers.
Though he thinks that the government’s attempts to limit the freedom of the press in Yemen are “desperate attempts doomed to fail,” he was astonished by these practices that occurred a few weeks after a presidential decision to issue more independent newspapers.