Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in May that he would work to decriminalize press offenses. Yet three months later, a prominent editor who published opinion pieces opposing the president’s handling of a bloody armed rebellion was sentenced to a year in prison, and his newspaper was suspended for six months.
Such is the contradictory climate in which Yemeni journalists work. Authorities say they want to promote press freedom, but at the same time they wield a harsh press law as a weapon against journalists who offend them. The 1990 Press Law criminalizes writing anything that can “cause tribal, sectarian, racial, regional, or ancestral discrimination” or “undermine public morals.” The press is also barred from reporting “direct or personal criticism of the person of the head of state.”
In April, Said Thabet Said of the London-based news agency Al-Quds Press was barred from working in journalism for six months after he was convicted of publishing false information. Said was accused of filing an incorrect report saying that President Saleh’s son, who is commander of the country’s Republican Guard, had been injured in an assassination attempt.
Many recent Press Law cases have led to suspended prison sentences, or simply to investigations that were left open. For example, journalists Jalal al-Sharabi, Nayef Hassan, and Fouad al-Rabadi were given suspended sentences in May for publishing an article about homosexuality, a taboo topic in Yemen, in the weekly newspaper Al-Ousbou (The Week). Journalists say the practice of opening investigations or giving suspended sentences is designed to intimidate journalists without appearing overly repressive.
In 2004, the prosecution of Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura (The Consultation), sent a chilling message to journalists that critical reporting can have more serious consequences. In September, al-Khaiwani was convicted in a criminal court in Sana‘a of incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination. He was sentenced to a year in prison, and the court suspended Al-Shoura for six months. Local journalists told CPJ that al-Khaiwani was placed in a prison wing housing violent criminals.
The charges against the editor stemmed from nine opinion pieces in the July 7 issue, which was devoted to the Yemeni government’s fight against rebel cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Hawthi. Al-Hawthi led an uprising in the northern region of Saada for more than two months until government forces killed him on September 10. Hundreds of people, including rebels, government troops, and civilians, were reportedly killed during the uprising. In staff-written articles, the paper criticized the government’s conduct and questioned its motives. One piece claimed that the government was fostering terrorism with its actions, while another alleged that innocent people were being killed in the conflict.
After the al-Khaiwani case, many journalists said they felt compelled to censor their own work. Reporters, already careful not to criticize the president directly, said that stories on tribal tensions also attract unwanted attention from officials. Indirect government pressure—such as security agents calling editors to persuade them not to cover certain issues—adds to the climate of self-censorship.
Nonetheless, Yemen’s printed press, composed of independent, opposition, and pro-government dailies and weeklies, is surprisingly diverse and aggressive in its coverage. It is not uncommon for newspapers to take strong editorial positions against government policies. Government corruption and human rights violations are reported, with ministers named and criticized.
With an estimated national literacy rate of 50 percent or less, the government has chosen to keep firm control of television and radio. It has yet to license a private television or radio station, though the law does not specifically exclude private broadcasters. Many Yemenis get their news from state-run radio and TV stations, which dutifully reflect government opinion. But Arabic-language satellite channels, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, are growing in popularity, particularly in cities, where satellite access is more readily available.