The State of Journalism in Yemen

yemenThe wave of unrest that began in January 2011 to the transition of power in Yemen from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to newly-elected President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2012 signified the people’s dream for freedom from a 33-year dictatorship. But hopes for a better Yemen have been crushed by the atmosphere of anarchy, total lawlessness and violence which has claimed the lives of 25 journalists in 2015 alone, following the resignation of Hadi on January 22, 2015 after Shiite Houthi rebels stormed his home, forcing him to flee Yemen.

The attempted assassination of Mansour Nour, the continued imprisonment of prominent Yemeni journalist Abdul Elah Haider Shaye and the recent kidnapping of Yemeni journalist Waheed al-Sufi are just a few examples of the true state of security which mirrors the decrepit conditions of press freedom in Yemen. Air strikes spearheaded by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of 10 countries directed towards Houthi-controlled territory in an attempt to restore President Hadi to office, as well as public protest calls addressed to Houthi militants calling for the release of imprisoned journalists have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, extremists are responding with journalist- centered violence in an attempt to put a cap on press freedom and objective reporting in Yemen.

Even now, journalists in Yemen are living with intimidation, threat, and fear of violent reprisal which not only affect them, but are also carried to family, friends and colleagues. Questions to which they have no answers are raised in their minds, foremost of which is, how they can remain safe and still perform their civilian duty of truthful conflict reporting. Another question is, whether this stressful day-to-day living under threat would negatively affect future generations of journalists operating in war-torn countries and cause them to be content with watered-down facts in exchange for their safety. They have seen too many examples of colleagues who continue the work in spite of the risks, out of love for the job. Yet, they see the very same people eventually buckle down from the psychological toll of living under constant threat, leading them to realize that being a journalist in Yemen is a real challenge, and it is no longer enough to have courage and experience because war could kill.

The four greatest risks to journalists today in the order of importance are: Surveillance (33%), Imprisonment (29%), Murder (22%) and Kidnapping (16%). The risks are evenly distributed and not confined to well-known international media personnel or foreign correspondents; the reality is that nine out of ten are local media men covering local news.

Even if they have learned to live with the hazards of competent journalism, phone tapping, roving bugs, surveillance cameras, cell-site location information, call and email records still remain a stark reality the moment they enter into a conflict area. If journalists intend to protect themselves, they have to adopt stringent measures to protect the identity of their sources through secure and untraceable tip lines, surveillance-resistant equipment such as state-of-the-art encryption software, cell-site location information and gap computers, blending into the local population to stay out of the discerning eye of government surveillance. Journalists traveling to Yemen ofte do hostile environment awareness training before arriving.

Despite previous indications of radical changes in Yemen’s government information mouthpiece in the form of news and television channels, the journalists’ high hopes that media is going in the right direction has been squelched. Journalists and cameramen covering military operations, indiscriminate filming of bombing sites, reporting demonstrations protesting issues that affect the Yemeni population and documenting politically sensitive issues such as terrorist networks, corruption, civilian conflicts and anything which would put the government in a bad light, all meet the same fate.

Abdul Elah Haider Shaye, who attracted international renown for reporting the true circumstances of the 2009 bombing of Al Majallah village in southern Yemen, and his exclusive interview with a top Al Quaeda official, put him in bad graces of the Yemeni government, resulting in his imprisonment. He was convicted by the Specialized Criminal Court for Terrorism in January 2011 and sentenced to up to five years in prison. He would have been released by virtue of a presidential pardon a month after his conviction, but former Yemeni President Saleh recanted his decision following intervention from U.S. President Barack Obama, and to this day, concerted action to demand his release have been unsuccessful. Just barely 8 months before Shaye will have served the full 5-year sentence, the journalist community watches with apprehension the final outcome of Shaye’s ordeal when someone else is holding the key.

This is the reality of the plight of journalists in Yemen, and in any other conflict area for that matter. Their profession, albeit a noble one is not without its hazards, but each one can provide a support system for another and adopt measures to lessen the risks and ensure their safety.