“This recent spate of attacks on the press in Yemen has created a formidable climate of intimidation for all journalists,” said CPJ’s executive director, Ann K. Cooper. “We call on President Saleh to take the lead in reversing this sharp deterioration in press freedom.”
Since February, at least three journalists have been arrested, a leading London-based newspaper banned, and an editor severely beaten by unknown assailants.
One of the six papers now being prosecuted, the independent Al-Ayyam, faces indefinite closure if convicted of instigating “national feuds,” “the spirit of separatism,” and harming “national unity.” The charges were brought on May 15 against editor Hisham Basharaheel and journalist Ali Haitham al Ghareeb, for a February article criticizing the structure of local government in which southern provinces are governed by politicians from the north of the country. Since Yemen’s 1994 civil war, tensions between north and south have often focused on issues of governance and regional political dominance.
A copy of the letter is attached.
His Excellency President Ali Abdullah Saleh
c/o His Excellency Ambassador Abdul Wahab al-Hajjri
Embassy of the Republic of Yemen
2600 Virginia Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20037
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to express its grave concern about the alarming pattern of government restrictions on press freedom in Yemen in recent months, which violate international standards for free expression. As of this writing, six independent and opposition newspapers are facing trial in the court of first instance in response to their publication of news and opinion on a variety of domestic topics. And during the past four months, authorities have taken a series of punitive measures against journalists, including the arrest of editors and reporters, the suspension and censorship of publications, and extra-legal harassment by security forces and presumed state agents.
Most recently, on May 15, Hisham Basharaheel, editor in chief of the thrice-weekly newspaper Al-Ayyam, and Ali Haitham Ghareeb, a writer for the paper, were charged in the Aden court of first instance with instigating “national feuds,” “the spirit of separatism,” and harming “national unity.” The charge against both men stems from an article by Ghareeb published in the February 27, 1999 edition of Al-Ayyam titled “Let’s Talk About Unity from the Social Perspective.” The article contained criticism of factionalism in Yemeni society and specifically criticized the structure of local government in which southern provinces are governed by politicians from the north of the country.
Yemeni security authorities arrested Ghareeb on March 2 at his home in Khor Maksar, in Aden. He was first taken to the Criminal Investigations Department and then transferred to Mansourah Central Prison, where he was held for five days. On March 4, Basharaheel was summoned by state prosecutors and questioned for four hours about the article.
Basharaheel has also been charged with violating a January 1999 court order banning the publication of court proceedings of the trial of a group of British nationals who, at the time, were facing terrorism charges in Aden. The article, published on March 3, 1999, and titled “Lawyer Hmeidan Calls for Dismissal of Trial of Her British Clients on Account of Improper Legal Proceedings,” summarized a story by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which reported that the lawyer for the eight men had urged that their cases be dismissed on procedural grounds.
Hearings in the trial of Basharaheel and Ghareeb are expected to resume later this week. If found guilty, both men face possible fines and Al-Ayyam faces indefinite closure.
In addition to Al-Ayyam, prosecutions are pending against five other weekly newspapers in the court of first instance in Sanaa for alleged publications offenses or for unspecified charges. The papers are: Al-Shoura, Yemen Times, Al-Rai al-Aam (currently suspended by authorities), Al-Thawri, and Al-Haq. Some of the charges have been filed by authorities in response to the newspapers’ coverage of alleged government impropriety and other sensitive social issues, while in other cases, authorities have yet to formally present the defendants with specific charges. Journalists from these papers, however, believe that the cases stem from their published news and commentary which has been critical of the Yemeni government. Several newspaper representatives are scheduled to attend court hearings in Sanaa tomorrow.
The recent flurry of prosecutions against journalists has occurred against the backdrop of a sharp decline of press freedom in Yemen in recent months. This deterioration has helped to create a formidable atmosphere of intimidation for all members of the profession. Over the past several weeks, CPJ has documented the following cases of government (and suspected government) interference with the press:
- On January 30, 1999, the first instance court in Al- Mina ordered Yemeni newspapers to halt coverage of the proceedings of the trial of a group of British nationals who, at the time, were facing terrorism charges in Aden. Some newspaper editors told CPJ that the court’s ruling forced them to attribute reporting on the trial to foreign news sources and dispatches.
- On February 23, 1999,security authorities in Sanaa arrested No’aman Qaid Seif, editor in chief of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura, accusing him of “disseminating false information” in a February 21 article titled “The President is Urged to Fight Corruption.” The article called on Your Excellency to end alleged government corruption and to respect human rights. Seif was held overnight in the Criminal Investigations Department before his release. He is expected to appear in court tomorrow, although authorities have yet to specify charges against him.
- On February 25, 1999, the Ministry of Information issued a decree ordering the closure of Al-Shoura, saying that two newspapers under the same title were publishing concurrently in violation of the press law. According to journalists from the paper, authorities had helped finance the second version of Al-Shoura as a subterfuge. The March 5 issue of Al-Shoura was also banned under the same pretext, according to editors at the paper.
- Authorities banned distribution of the February 27, 1999, issue of the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat in apparent response to its coverage of Yemeni affairs. The edition had carried several articles on Yemen, including one which discussed Russian arms sales to Yemen and hinted that Yemen may be preparing to transfer arms to its ally Eritrea. In early March, the Ministry of Information banned the publication indefinitely. According to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, no reason was given for the action, although authorities told the paper that it had printed “incorrect” information. The newspaper resumed circulation in Yemen in early May, according to editors.
- On March 2,1999, Abdel Latif al-Kutbi Omar, the 68 year-old editor in chief of the opposition weekly Al-Haq, was arrested at his Sanaa office by five armed plainclothes agents and was taken to the Criminal Investigation Department for interrogation. Journalists suspect that his arrest came in response to an article published in Al-Haq on February 28, titled “Socotra Prepares to Offer its Services to American Forces,” although no reason for his arrest was given. The February 28 story reported that Yemeni authorities had initiated plans to offer military facilities to the United States on the island of Socotra under a military co-operation agreement between the two countries. Omar was released on March 6 after three days in custody. Recently, he was informed by judicial authorities that he would be prosecuted, although it was not specified on what grounds. Omar is expected to appear in court tomorrow.
- At about eight o’clock on the evening of May 10, 1999, four armed, masked men stormed the Sanaa home of Saif al-Hadheri, the editor in chief of the weekly Al-Shumua’, and brutally beat him before fleeing the scene. Hadheri was taken to the hospital and is currently recovering from his injuries.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, views these incidents as grave threats to freedom of expression in Yemen and as flagrant violations of international standards for press freedom. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees journalists the right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
CPJ urges Your Excellency to adopt the following recommendations aimed at bringing Yemen’s practices in conformity with international standards for a free press:
- Guarantee the right of journalists to report news and opinion without state reprisal, including the dissemination of a diversity of views, even if these views are opposed to or critical of prevailing state policies;
- Cease all state prosecutions of journalists in response to their publication of news and opinion;
- Halt the arrest and detention of journalists in response to their publication of news and opinion;
- End state censorship of foreign publications and the suspension of local papers;
- End all extra-judicial harassment of journalists by security forces and state agents;
Launch an immediate and thorough investigation into the May 10 attack on Seif al-Hadheri and make its findings public.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your prompt reply.
Ann K. Cooper