In Yemen, two journalists face trial for covering uprisings

Yemeni protesters in Aden on May 11 call for the trial of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (AFP)

New York, May 15, 2012--Yemen's Press and Publications Court must drop charges against two Al-Jazeera journalists for their coverage of last year's uprising, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ also urged the Cabinet not to revive a restrictive Audio-Visual and Electronic Media bill that has been pending in Parliament since 2010.

Two Sana'a-based Al-Jazeera correspondents, Ahmed al-Shalafi and Hamdi al-Bukari, were summoned Monday to appear before the special Press and Publications Court on May 21 for "operating outside the bounds of the law," according to news reports. The government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh-who stepped down in February following popular protests-filed a case against the two journalists in June 2011, claiming they broke the law by broadcasting news of the uprising after the government pulled Al-Jazeera's accreditation. Despite the Ministry of Information having withdrawn the charges, the Press and Publications Court has chosen to revive the case, news reports said. A 2010 CPJ report found that the court is politicized and arbitrary and fails to accord journalists the minimal legal protections. Many local lawyers described it as unconstitutional.

Saeed Thabit, Al-Jazeera's Yemen bureau chief, told CPJ that the move is part of a campaign against Al-Jazeera and press freedom in Yemen. In April 2011, security forces raided and shut down Al-Jazeera's Sana'a offices; the government pulled the station's accreditation; and several of its journalists faced harassment, death threats, and assault for their coverage of the uprising. Saleh had accused the station of conspiring against Yemen and using its broadcasts to topple the regime. Thabit said none of the perpetrators of the 2011 attack on Al-Jazeera have been brought to justice.

"The court's revival of a politicized case from the Saleh era sends a clear message to all journalists in Yemen that nothing has changed for the press," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

In late May, the Cabinet is due to discuss an Audio-Visual and Electronic Media bill proposed by former President Saleh's government in 2010, according to local press freedom group Freedom Foundation for media freedom, rights, and development. Local and international human rights and press freedom groups had condemned the bill as an attempt to restrict the press.

CPJ's 2010 review of the proposed legislation found that it would impose exorbitant registration fees on private broadcasters and subject online outlets to licensing fees and state regulation, among other restrictions. The Sana'a-based Freedom Foundation is calling for the drafting of a new audio-visual bill or at the least a significant revision of the proposed one, said Khaled al-Hammadi, president of group. He told CPJ that the government is trying to restrict reporting with this legislation.

"As if hauling journalists in front of an extraordinary tribunal on trumped up charges were not enough, the authorities are now also reviving a media law that was so restrictive, it could not even pass during Saleh's near-absolute grip on power," Abdel Dayem said.

May 15, 2012 5:24 PM ET |

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