Letters   |   Yemen

CPJ appeals to Yemen to end crackdown on media

May 22, 2009

President Ali Abdullah Saleh
C/o Embassy of the Republic of Yemen
2319 Wyoming Avenue, NW
Washington,
D.C. 20008

Via facsimile 202-337-2017

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists writes to express its concern about your government's recent crackdown on media outlets that have covered civil unrest in the southern part of Yemen.

In recent weeks, CPJ has documented a staggering number of attacks by the government on critical newspapers and Web sites--from the barring of newspapers sales to holding journalists incommunicado to attacking and firing at the offices of a newspaper and, most disturbingly, the establishment of a special court to try press offenses.

Since May 1, CPJ has noted the following attacks on independent and critical press in Yemen:

  • On May 1, thousands of copies of the Aden-based Al-Ayyam newspaper were burned by a group of armed men who newspaper staffers believe were acting on behalf of authorities. The next day, military checkpoints outside Aden confiscated around 50,000 copies of the newspaper that were destined for readers throughout the country. On May 3, security forces besieged Al-Ayyam's printing house, preventing the production of the newspaper. Since then, Al-Ayyam has not been able to reach newsstands.
  • On May 2, local and regional news Web sites reported on an order issued by the Ministry of Information to ban the sale of Al-Masdar, Al-Wattani, Al-Diyar, Al-Mustaqila, Al-Nida, and Al-Share. All of those newspapers had covered the recent unrest in southern Yemen. Last week, the ministry allowed Al-Share and Al-Diyar to be printed, but local journalists told CPJ that eight other newspapers have been forbidden to print as of May 20, reportedly by order of the Ministry of Information.
  • On May 4, during a raid in Al-Mukalla city security forces detained Fuad Rashid, editor-in-chief of the Mukalla Press Web site. He has been held incommunicado, local journalists said. CPJ found that Mukalla Press was inaccessible as of May 20.
  • On May 8, the prosecutor's office in Aden sent a summons to Al-Ayyam's editor-in-chief, Hisham Bashraheel, to appear at his office in relation to a lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Information. Although specific charges were not mentioned in the order, Bashraheel Bashraheel, general manager of Al-Ayyam, said he believed that they were likely related to the newspaper's critical coverage of the unrest in the south of the country.
  • On May 10, security forces stormed the house of Yahya Bamahfud, a blogger and former editor of the Hadhramaut Web site, and detained him. His computers and documents were confiscated during the raid, and has been held incommunicado since, local journalists told CPJ.
  • On May 11, the High Judicial Council decided that it would establish "a special press court" to try press offenses. Authorities have claimed that by establishing this special court judges would be able to speed up legal proceedings of press offenses, but the timing of the announcement raises serious questions about a concerted campaign targeting critical media. Local journalists protested the court, saying that it was unconstitutional.
  • On May 18, Al-Tagheer, a Sana'a-based independent news Web site, reported that authorities have blocked access to the site inside the country, Arafat Mudabish, editor-in-chief, told CPJ. Although authorities have not provided any justification for this action, Mudabish said he believed that it might be the result of the site's coverage of the southern unrest. The site remained blocked inside Yemen as of May 21, he told CPJ. Additionally, the sites of Al-Share, Al-Masdar, and Al-Ayyam have also been blocked inside the country, local journalists told CPJ.
  • On May 18, Sami Ghaleb, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Nida, was investigated at the Sana'a prosecution office on charges of "inciting armed disobedience, incitement against national unity, and publishing articles and subjects that promote sectarianism," he told CPJ. Ghaleb and three of the newspaper staffers have been sued by the Ministry of Information, he said. ‏‏ ‏According to local journalists other newspapers such as Al-Share, Al-Masdar, Al-Diyar, and Al-Wattani have been sued by the Ministry of Information on similar charges. If the staffers are convicted, the punishment could be the death penalty, Ghaleb told CPJ.
  • Al-Ayyam's has been the target of a harsh crackdown by authorities. On May 13, security forces surrounded and then attacked the compound that houses Al-Ayyam in Aden. Al-Ayyam's general manager told CPJ that just before noon a group of security forces attacked the offices from multiple directions. The clashes between the attackers and the newspaper's guards lasted about an hour; a passerby was killed and two guards were injured.

Security forces justified their attack, saying that they were attempting to enforce an order to appear before a court for Al-Ayyam editor-in-chief Hisham Bashraheel, his son Hani Bashraheel, and a staffer who had been summoned by the Sana'a prosecutor's office to answer questions relating to a 2008 case in which the newspaper's guards killed an assailant. 

The case stems from an incident that occurred on February 12, 2008, when a group of gunmen attacked the offices of Al-Ayyam in Sana'a in an attempt to take over the buildings, Bashraheel's lawyers told CPJ. Clashes between the assailants and the newspaper's guards broke out and resulted in the death of one assailant. In a police investigation after the incident, Hisham Bashraheel and his son Hani Bashraheel were cleared of committing any offense, their lawyers told CPJ.

The order to appear in court was issued after the family of the killed assailant accused the three men from Al-Ayyam of inciting guards to kill the attacker. Bashraheel's lawyers told CPJ that the prosecutor's office violated the law because the summons was issued without obtaining new evidence. His lawyers also said that the summons violates procedural law, which states that citizens should appear before the prosecutor in the town where they reside. In Bahsraheel's case he has been summoned to appear before Sana'a's instead of Aden's prosecutor. 

We urge you to direct all relevant agencies within your government to put an immediate end to these attacks, order the Ministry of Information to drop pending harassing lawsuits filed against the media, and order the release of the detained journalist and blogger without delay. Journalists must not be censored during such a critical time for your country.

We ask that your government dissolve the special press court and refer all journalism-related offenses to Yemen's ordinary courts. This special court will only have a chilling effect on journalists, who will more greatly fear prosecution for merely doing their jobs.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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