Attacks on the Press 2000: Yemen

SINCE THE UNIFICATION OF NORTH AND SOUTH YEMEN IN 1990, the Yemeni press has become exceptionally free by Arabian peninsula standards. But in the past six years, authorities have aggressively moved to narrow existing press freedoms via criminal prosecutions, censorship, and intimidation. Taken together, these actions have helped foster an increasing climate of self-censorship in the independent press.

The country’s Press and Publications Law, along with articles of the Penal Code, gives the government broad powers to prosecute journalists for a host of vaguely defined offenses. For example, the law prohibits reporting or commentary that “prejudices the Islamic faith” or “jeopardizes the supreme interests of the state,” or which might cause “tribal, sectarian, racial, regional, or ancestral discrimination or which might spread a spirit of dissent and division.” It also bars any criticism of the president. Violators face imprisonment or fines, and authorities are empowered to seize newspapers that break the law.

In February, a Sanaa court imposed a 30-day suspension on the opposition weekly Al-Wahdawi and permanently banned one of its journalists, Jamal Amer, from practicing his profession in Yemen. Amer had been convicted of harming public interests, offending King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and damaging relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in a column about alleged power struggles within the Saudi royal family. Both sentences were later suspended pending appeal.

In May, Hisham Basharaheel, editor of the independent Aden weekly Al-Ayyam, was charged along with reporter Hassan Ben Hassainoun with instigating “sectarian feuds” and “the spirit of separatism” in an article on the neglect of historical sites in Yemen. Both journalists faced up to two years in prison in a case that was still pending at year’s end. A few days later, the same court charged Basharaheel with publishing false information, “instigating the use of force and terrorism,” and “insulting public institutions” in an interview with the London-based Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri. In the interview, al-Masri denounced a Yemeni court that had recently convicted his son Muhammad of terrorism. Basharaheel faced additional prison time if convicted.

Under pressure from local Islamist leaders, the government brought charges against Samir al-Yusufi, editor of the weekly Al-Thaqafiya, after the paper serialized an allegedly blasphemous novel. In July, al-Yusufi went on trial for apostasy-a crime punishable by death. The case was still open at year’s end, but the authorities seemed reluctant to push ahead with the controversial trial.

In May, an appeals court upheld a sentence of 80 lashes against journalist Abdel Jaber Saad, formerly with the weekly Al-Shoura. In 1997, Saad was convicted of libeling a leading politician of the Islamist Islah party. It was unclear whether the punishments would be carried out. However, officials did allow Al-Shoura to resume publishing in August. (The Ministry of Information had banned the paper in September 1999, just before the September 23 presidential election.)

As in past years, journalists complained of intimidation and physical abuse by security agents. And in a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the region, broadcasting remained under strict state control.

Jamal Amer, Al-Wahdawi

A Sanaa court imposed a 30-day suspension on the opposition weekly Al-Wahdawi and permanently banned Amer, a contributor to the newspaper, from practicing journalism in Yemen. Amer was accused of harming public interests, damaging relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and offending King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

The charges stemmed from an August 10, 1999 piece by Amer, titled “The King’s Evacuation Complicates the Yemeni-Saudi Crisis.” In the article, Amer analyzed alleged power struggles within the Saudi royal family during the summer of 1999, around the time when King Fahd embarked on an extended vacation to Spain, reportedly for health reasons. The author argued that such infighting could have a negative effect on an ongoing Yemeni-Saudi border dispute.

On August 12,1999, two days after the article appeared, Yemeni police detained Amer at his home in the city of Ib. He was taken to the Prosecutor General’s office, questioned, and then transferred to a detention center for further interrogation. Amer was released after six days.

The court also fined Amer 5000 rials (US$30). All sentences were suspended pending the outcome of an appeal, which had not been decided at year’s end.

CPJ protested the sentences in a February 24 letter to Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

MAY 10
Hisham Basharaheel, Al-Ayyam

The Seera Court of First Instance charged Basharaheel, editor and publisher of the thrice-weekly Aden-based newspaper Al-Ayyam, with a number of offenses, including “publishing false information,” “instigating the use of force and terrorism,” and “insulting public institutions.” The accusations were based on an interview with the London-based Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri that was published in Al-Ayyam on August 11, 1999. In the interview, al-Masri denounced a Yemeni court’s recent conviction of his son Muhammad on terrorism charges. Al-Masri also criticized the ongoing trial of alleged members of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, a shadowy Islamist group accused of kidnapping and murdering foreign tourists in Yemen.

The case was pending at year’s end. If convicted, Basharaheel faces up to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to 4000 rials (US$26). The state prosecutor also requested the indefinite closure of the Al-Ayyam Printing House, which prints Al-Ayyam. This move would effectively shut down the newspaper.

MAY 15
Hisham Basharaheel, Al-Ayyam
Hassan Ben Hassainoun, Al-Ayyam

Basharaheel, editor of the thrice-weekly Aden-based newspaper Al-Ayyam, was charged in the Seera Court of First Instance, along with reporter Hassainoun, with instigating “sectarian feuds” and “the spirit of separatism.” The charges stemmed in part from a February 7 article by Hassainoun, titled “The Properties of Religious Sects and Social Peace.” The article criticized Yemeni authorities for neglecting to preserve historical sites in the country. Hassainoun specifically took the government to task for demolishing a 19th-century synagogue in Aden.

Yemeni authorities summoned Basharaheel for questioning in March, but did not charge him at that time. The case was pending at year’s end. If convicted, both journalists face up to two years in prison.

MAY 24
Khaled Hammadi, Al-Quds al-Arabi

Hammadi, a reporter for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, was attacked and detained by Yemeni security authorities while covering a student protest in Sanaa. The students were protesting against an accused killer named Muhammad Omar, a Sudanese national and former morgue worker at Sanaa University, who had been implicated in the serial murder of several women.

According to Hammadi, security officers attacked him as he tried to photograph the demonstrators. Other security agents intervened, telling Hammadi he needed permission from security headquarters in order to photograph. Even though the required clearance arrived some thirty minutes later, Hammadi was again attacked when he tried to photograph. This time the officers seized his camera and confiscated the film (the camera was later returned).

As Hammadi was leaving the scene of the demonstration, several officers attacked him yet again as he tried to enter his car. Hammadi was then taken to security headquarters and held for about an hour before being released.