The emergence of outspoken private and party newspapers following the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 has set the country apart from many of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, where the press remains tightly controlled. Yemeni papers are notably opinionated and not shy about confronting the government. But the government’s record on press freedom has been uneven. In the last 13 years, several government crackdowns have led to the arrest or prosecution of independent journalists and the closure of their newspapers.
In 2003, there were fewer cases of overt government harassment of journalists compared with previous years. However, journalists were still hampered by the threat of legal action and other forms of state reprisal, and, as a result, self-censorship remained an issue.
Though not employed against the media as in past years, Yemen’s 1990 Press Law remained a formidable threat in 2003. The law bars criticism of the president and lists a wide range of vaguely worded offenses that can land a journalist in court and prison. For example, Article 103 prohibits journalists and editors from publishing articles that “cause tribal, sectarian, racial, regional or ancestral discrimination” or “undermine public morals or prejudices the dignity of individuals or personal freedoms.”
In March, three journalists from the pan-Arab Nasserist party newspaper, al-Wihdawi–Editor-in-Chief Ali al-Saqaf and two reporters, Ahmed Said Nasser and Abdel Aziz Ismail–received four-month suspended prison sentences after they were convicted of harming relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Al-Saqaf said the case was brought against the paper after the Saudi government complained to the Yemeni Information Ministry. He added that the proceedings were vague, and that the judge never specified what law the journalists had violated. The paper had published several articles critical of Saudi Arabia, including one that said that although Yemen has a reputation for being home to Islamist extremists, Saudi Arabia is responsible for funding them.
In November, the government introduced a bill in Parliament that would compel journalists to join the Yemeni press association to legally practice journalism in the country. The bill also required news organizations to contribute 3 percent of their advertising revenue to support the association’s activities. Yemeni journalists and CPJ protested the bill, which was withdrawn from Parliament in early December.
Still, many independent journalists–including those working for foreign media outlets–noticed improvements in the government’s willingness to allow coverage of major events, particularly developments in the battle against religious extremists. In 2002, the Information Ministry issued a directive ordering journalists not to cover events in provinces where clashes between government forces and Islamist groups were occurring, but in 2003, journalists said they were allowed to cover freely such clashes in the Hatat Mountains. In some cases, authorities even facilitated coverage. For example, the Defense Ministry had journalists accompany troops in an embed-type program, and ministry officials made themselves available to journalists for questions. Opposition journalists, however, complained that the government gave preferential treatment to journalists described as being close to the government.
One independent editor told CPJ that the government’s change of heart was due to the fact that most major newspapers have supported the government’s war against extremists, and that the government hoped to increase its credibility by being more transparent.
Human rights issues, such as prisoners’ rights, were also covered with greater regularity and aggressiveness by independent and opposition party newspapers, local journalists said. In describing the improved press climate, one Yemeni editor gave the example of an article in a government paper about defective pesticides produced in Yemen. The story led Saudi Arabia to suspend imports of Yemeni produce and pesticides, and the president publicly criticized the journalist who wrote the story. While the journalist could have faced a government lawsuit in previous years, nothing came of the incident.
Yemen has one of the lowest literacy rates in the region, and the government controls television and radio, which is where most Yemenis get their news. Many journalists complain that the quality of television news is poor. Amat al-Aleem Alsoswa, Yemen’s human rights minister (a newly created post that also handles press freedom issues), told CPJ in a meeting in New York in September that even though the government controls TV and radio, there is nothing in Yemeni law that precludes individuals from applying for licenses to start a private radio or television station. One Yemeni journalist said that while this is technically true, there are no guidelines on how to establish a private television or radio station. He said that he sent a letter to the Information Ministry several years ago stating that he intended to open a radio station and asking procedural questions. He had yet to receive a response at year’s end. n