Attacks on the Press 1999: Yemen

During the heady days following the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990, there was a remarkable proliferation of private newspapers and a new vigor in public discourse. In recent years, however, the Yemeni government has been following the repressive example of its regional neighbors. Although Yemen still boasts one of the freest and liveliest presses in the region, authorities have been steadily increasing their pressure on independent and opposition journalists since 1994, when civil war broke out between north and south.

As Yemenis geared up for the country’s first ever presidential election, in September, authorities carried out a number of punitive measures against journalists, including arrests, prosecutions, censorship, and acts of intimidation. In the first three months of the year, three journalists were detained and held for varying periods. Others were summoned for questioning by prosecutors or security agents. During the year, at least seven newspapers stood trial for alleged press offenses in what some journalists described as an attempt by authorities to muzzle criticism in advance of the September election.

Yemen’s press law and penal code give authorities sweeping powers to prosecute journalists on vague charges such as offending “the State, the Cabinet, or parliamentary institutions” and publishing “false information” that “threatens public order or the public interest.”

In one of the year’s most prominent cases, editor Hisham Basharaheel and writer Ali Haitham Ghareeb of the prominent Aden-based paper Al-Ayyam were charged with “instigating national feuds,” “instigating the spirit of separatism,” and “harming national unity.” The charges stemmed from an opinion column written by Ghareeb that criticized what he described as northern political hegemony over southern provinces. In August, the journalists were handed suspended prison terms of six and 10 months, respectively. However, the court rejected the prosecutor’s bid to close the newspaper.

On several occasions, authorities resorted to censorship to silence opposition and foreign newspapers. In late February, successive issues of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura were banned on the pretext that two separate editions of the paper were being published in violation of the law. And on February 27, authorities temporarily banned distribution of the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, apparently because of an article on Russian arms sales to Yemen and the prospect of Yemeni arms transfers to Eritrea.

Beyond prosecutions and censorship, journalists continued to complain of extralegal harassment, such as the interruption of their phone lines, surveillance, and intimidation by security agents.

In July, CPJ vice chairman Terry Anderson traveled to Yemen to express CPJ’s concerns to government officials. He met with Prime Minister Abdel Karim al-Iryani, who declared that harassment and threats against journalists are “abhorrent to our laws and ideals” and should be condemned. The prime minister promised to investigate any cases reported to him. “We are committed to freedom of the press,” Prime Minister al-Iryani told Anderson. “We are ready to listen to any report of a violation and ready to take action….We highly condemn harassment and threats against journalists.”

Still, al-Iryani said his government would continue to file court cases against journalists and newspapers that publish what he referred to as lies. He also refused to promise an end to censorship of foreign publications entering the country, saying that such censorship occurs mainly for ethical rather than political reasons.

In the ensuing months, government censorship of local papers intensified. Just before the country’s September 23 presidential election, the Ministry of Information ordered the closure of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura. A few weeks later, a court imposed a one-month suspension on the opposition weekly Al-Haq after it ran an article that criticized the government.

In one positive development, the weekly Al-Rai al-Aam was allowed to resume publication in May after a six-month ban (incurred because of an article that criticized Saudi Arabia). President Saleh reportedly reversed the ban after the paper’s editor appealed to him in person at a ceremony commemorating Yemen’s 1990 unification.

TV and radio continue to serve as crucial sources of news and information in Yemen, which suffers from one of the region’s highest illiteracy rates. Yet no private broadcast outlets exist. According to newspaper reports, authorities over the past two years have rejected at least three requests to set up private radio and television stations, citing the lack of a regulatory framework. In 1998, Minister of Information Abdel Rahman al-Akwa’a said the government was “formulating the legal bases” to regulate the licensing of private stations, but in 1999 the government showed no sign that it was ready or willing to share the airwaves.

On June 2, Yemen lost one of its finest and most courageous journalists when Dr. Abdul Aziz al-Saqqaf was killed in a traffic accident while crossing a street in the capital, Sanaa. The founder and editor of the English-language weekly Yemen Times, Dr. al-Saqqaf was a leading force in Yemeni journalism over the years and a powerful voice in defense of press freedom.

February 23
No’aman Qaid Seif, Al-Shoura ARRESTED

Security authorities in Sanaa arrested Seif, then editor of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura, accusing him of “disseminating false information” in a February 21 article entitled “The President Is Urged to Fight Corruption.”

The article reported that President Ali Abdullah Saleh had purchased a large number of pickup trucks and distributed them to potential allies in order to muster political support in the September 23 presidential election. The article also urged Saleh to fight corruption and to respect human rights.

Seif was held overnight in the Criminal Investigations Department and then released.

February 27
Al-Sharq al-Awsat CENSORED

Authorities banned distribution of the February 27 issue of the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, apparently in response to its coverage of Yemeni affairs. The edition had carried several articles on Yemen, including one that discussed Russian arms sales to Yemen and hinted that Yemen might be preparing to transfer arms to its ally Eritrea.

In early March, the Ministry of Information banned the publication indefinitely. According to sources at 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.

February 25

On February 25, the Ministry of Information issued a decree ordering the closure of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura on the grounds that two newspapers were publishing concurrently under the same title in violation of the press law.

According to journalists from the paper, however, authorities had helped fund the second version of Al-Shoura as a subterfuge. The March 5 issue of was banned under the same pretext, according to editors at the paper.

CPJ protested these actions in a May 17 letter to Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

March 2
Abdel Latif al-Kutbi Omar, Al-Haq IMPRISONED

Five armed plainclothes agents arrested Omar, the 68-year-old editor of the weekly Al-Haq, at his Sanaa office and took him to the Criminal Investigation Department for interrogation.

No reason was given for the arrest, although it is widely believed that it came in response to a February 28 Al-Haq article entitled “Socotra Prepares to Offer Its Services to American Forces.” The story reported that Yemeni authorities had initiated plans to offer military facilities to the United States on the island of Socotra under a military-cooperation agreement between the two countries. Omar was released on March 6 after three days in custody.

March 4
Hisham Basharaheel, Al-Ayyam HARASSED

State prosecutors summoned Basharaheel, editor of the thrice-weekly Al-Ayyam, for four hours of questioning about an article in the February 27 edition of Al-Ayyam entitled “Let’s Talk about Unity from the Social Perspective.” The article criticized Yemen’s system of local government, in which southern provinces are governed mainly by politicians from the north of the country.

The author of the article, AlAyyam‘s Ali Haitham Ghareeb, was arrested on March 2 and held for five days (see March 2 case).

May 10
Saif al-Hadheri, Al-Shumua’ ATTACKED

At around 8 p.m., four armed, masked men stormed the Sanaa home of Saif al-Hadheri, editor of the pro-government weekly Al-Shumua’, and beat him brutally before fleeing the scene. Al-Hadheri was taken to the hospital, where he received treatment for his injuries. While the motive for the attack remains unclear, some journalists told CPJ that it may have come in response to the paper’s criticism of certain political factions within the regime.

On May 14, CPJ wrote to Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh urging that authorities initiate an immediate and thorough investigation into the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.

May 15
Hisham Basharaheel, Al-Ayyam LEGAL ACTION
Ali Haitham Ghareeb, Al-Ayyam LEGAL ACTION

Basharaheel, editor of the thrice-weekly newspaper Al-Ayyam, and Ghareeb, a writer for the paper, were charged in an Aden court with “instigating national feuds,” “instigating the spirit of separatism,” and “harming national unity.” The charge against both men stemmed from an article by Ghareeb published in the February 27 edition of Al-Ayyam entitled “Let’s Talk about Unity from the Social Perspective.”

The article discussed factionalism in Yemeni society and criticized the system under which southern provinces are governed mainly by politicians from the north of the country.

Basharaheel was also charged with violating a January 1999 court order banning the publication of court proceedings in the trial of a group of British nationals facing terrorism charges in Aden. The March 3 article, entitled “Lawyer Hmeidan Calls for Dismissal of Trial of Her British Clients on Account of Improper Legal Proceedings,” summarized a BBC broadcast reporting that the lawyer had urged that her clients’ cases be dismissed on procedural grounds.

On August 4, Judge Mohsen Alwan sentenced Basharaheel and Ghareeb to suspended prison terms of six and 10 months, respectively.

Alwan ruled against the prosecution’s request that Al-Ayyam be closed indefinitely. The prosecution appealed the judge’s decision, and Al-Ayyam has appealed the convictions of both journalists.

July 18
Fras Farooq al-Yafaee, Al-Haqiqa, Okaz HARASSED

Armed state security agents stopped al-Yafaee, editor of the Yemeni weekly Al-Haqiqa and a correspondent for the Saudi newspaper Okaz, while he was driving his car in Aden.

The agents searched the car and detained al-Yafaee at a nearby police station but gave no explanation for their actions. One agent told al-Yafaee that they were authorized to detain him because the situation in Aden was “unstable.” Al-Yafaee believes he was detained because of an article he had written for Okaz reporting on the death of a Saudi citizen in a Yemeni jail.

He was released the same day, thanks to the intervention of the regular Yemeni police.

August 12
Jamal Amer, Al-Wahdawi IMPRISONED

Yemeni police detained Amer, editor of the Nasserist weekly Al-Wahdawi, at his home and took him to the office of the prosecutor general in the city of Ib. He was questioned about an Al-Wahdawi column cocnerning a visit to Spain by Saudi Arabia’s ailing King Fahd. The column speculated about alleged power struggles within the Saudi royal family and their possible effects on YemeniÐSaudi relations.

During his interrogation, Amer received a phone call from Interior Minister Hussein Arab, who questioned him about his sources.

Later that evening, Amer was taken to a detention center in Ib, where security agents interrogated him for one hour. The agents claimed that the column had harmed relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Amer was released two days later, on August 14, but was arrested again on August 15 and held for another two days before his release on August 17.

According to Amer, a court case was pending against him at year’s end, although it was not clear what charges had been filed.

September 11
Hisham Basharaheel, Al-Ayyam HARASSED

State prosecutors summoned Basharaheel, editor of the thrice-weekly Al-Ayyam, to answer questions about an interview with the London-based Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri that had appeared in Al-Ayyam in August. During his interrogation, Basharaheel was accused of publishing information from “unreliable sources.” Seven days later, on September 18, prosecutors in Aden again summoned him for questioning, this time about an Al-Ayyam news item in which passages from the Quran were apparently misquoted. The allegedly incorrect text did not originate with Al-Ayyam but appeared in the news item as part of a statement issued by an opposition party.

It was unclear whether prosecutors planned to file charges in either case. CPJ protested the harassment of Basharaheel in a September 20 letter to Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

September 16

An appellate court ordered the closure of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura. The court’s decision stemmed from an incident in February, when two separate versions of the paper were published under the same name in violation of the press law. But according to sources at Al-Shoura, Yemeni security authorities had helped publish the second version of the paper as a subterfuge. The sources argued that the government wished to sideline an opposition newspaper in advance of the September 23 presidential election.

Although Al-Shoura appealed the decision to Yemen’s highest court, authorities ordered the paper’s immediate closure. CPJ protested the ban in a September 23 letter to President Saleh, urging that the paper be allowed to resume publishing immediately.

October 7

A Yemeni court imposed a one-month suspension on the opposition weekly Al-Haq for allegedly inciting “sectarianism” and “regionalism” in opinion columns published in 1997 and 1999.

The offending articles, which included a May 1999 article by journalist Hassan Bin Hassainun entitled “In Hadrahmut, Practices against Unity,” strongly criticized government administration in southern Yemen.

In addition to the suspension, the court fined AlHaq‘s editor Abdel Latif al-Kutbi 4,000 rials (US$26). Hassainun and two other Al-Haq journalists, Ismail al-Riashi and Abdullah Hamadi, were fined 10,000 rials (US$66) each.

The court ruling took effect on October 9, after the Ministry of Information informed the paper’s printer of the decision. In an October 12 letter to Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, CPJ condemned the suspension and called for its immediate reversal. The paper resumed publication on November 14.