Has the President Changed his Mind?
Al-Ayyam newspaper, Yemen
Just last May, Yemen’s press enthusiastically reported President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s declaration that he would work to abolish prison penalties against journalists accused of press offenses.
Yet three months later, a prominent newspaper editor was sentenced to a year in jail where he remains today, and several more journalists have since been handed prison terms for their published criticisms.
So did the president change his mind?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Clarence Page posed that question to Yemen’s ambassador to the United States this month. Page, a member of the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists, was among a five-person CPJ delegation that met with Ambassador Abdulwahab al-Hajjri in Washington, D.C., to express dismay at Yemen’s recent crackdown on the press. His question underscores the wide gulf that remains between the official pronouncements and actual deeds of Arab governments in support of media freedoms.
Yemen and other Arab nations endorsed the Sanaa Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Arab Media at the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1997. The declaration, crafted by Arab journalists and human rights advocates at a UNESCO-sponsored seminar on press freedom in the Yemeni capital, explicitly states that the “arrest and detention of journalists because of their professional activities are a grave violation of human rights” and Arab governments that jail journalists should “release them immediately and unconditionally.”
Regrettably, the Sanaa Declaration has not prevented Arab governments from criminally prosecuting and jailing dissident journalists. Despite all of President Saleh’s words, it is true in Yemen today.
Just last September, Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura, was sentenced to a year in prison for incitement, “insulting” President Saleh, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination. His crime? Publishing opinion columns harshly opposing the authorities’ handling of the events in Saada last September involving rebel cleric Hussein Badreddine al-Hawthi. Since al-Khaiwani’s jailing, at least seven other journalists have been handed criminal convictions, including Abdulkarim Sabra and Abdulqawi al-Qabati, editor and reporter, respectively, of the private weekly Al-Hurriya. The men were each sentenced to two years in prison on December 29, 2004, for publishing an article in the newspaper. Sabra and al-Qabati have not been jailed yet, according to local journalists, but could be at any moment.
The imprisonment of al-Khaiwani officially puts Yemen—a country known for its relative tolerance of media dissent—in the company of countries such as China, Burma, Eritrea, and Cuba, which routinely imprison journalists for expressing their views.
Despite this dubious distinction, Yemeni officials continue to claim a commitment to freedom and democracy. Last month, as al-Khaiwani marked his fourth month in jail and Abdulkarim Sabra and Abdulqawi al-Qabati faced imminent arrest, President Saleh delivered an inaugural speech at the Sana’a Inter-Governmental Regional Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Role of the ICC. “Democracy is the choice of the modern age for all peoples of the world and the rescue ship for political regimes, particularly in our third world,” he declared.
He added: “Human rights are tightly connected to democracy and the state of law and order … (and) we should remove anything that contradicts them and stand against all forms of discrimination, oppression, and exploitation for the human being and his rights.”
True democracy requires tolerance of news and views that governments find objectionable. If President Saleh is serious about human rights and democracy, then he should stand up for press freedom and work swiftly to release Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani from prison, end the deplorable practice of jailing journalists for what they write, and do away with repressive media legislation that allows officials to restrict the press. Yemen, which has prided itself on the freedom of its press, can help lead the way for the rest of the region on media reform by taking such action.
It’s time to back up words with actions.
Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East at the Committee to Protect Journalists.