CPJ delegation alarmed by worsening press situation in Yemen

Sana’a, Yemen, January 26, 2006—A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm today at the deterioration of press freedom in Yemen. Over the last several months, a growing number of Yemeni journalists have been the victims of brutal assaults, arrests, intimidation, and government-sanctioned newspaper closures. They now also face the prospect of a new press law that would impose harsh restrictions on the media.

At a press conference in the capital, Sana’a, the press freedom watchdog called on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to ensure that a number of recent violent attacks on journalists are thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. The delegation included CPJ board members Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Dave Marash of the soon-to-be-launched satellite channel Al-Jazeera International, along with CPJ Senior Program Coordinator Joel Campagna.

The delegation met over two days with journalists, press freedom lawyers, and civil society activists, who described a climate of intimidation and mounting restrictions on Yemeni journalists over the last year. Witnesses and evidence point to involvement by government officials and suspected state agents in a number of brutal assaults, according to CPJ research. Journalists who covered protests, reported on official corruption, criticized the president or government policies, or discussed the possibility of President Saleh’s son succeeding him as president have been targeted.

Yemeni authorities have not credibly investigated the attacks or identified the perpetrators. Nor have government officials condemned the assaults.

Recent attacks include:

Jamal Amer, Al-Wasat
On August 23, armed men seized Jamal Amer, editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Wasat, and bundled him into a waiting car. The men beat him and threatened to kill him while warning him against criticizing high-level government officials. He was released about six hours later. Amer said he believes a car used in the abduction belonged to the Yemeni Republican Guard, based on the numeric configuration of its license plate, 11121/2. Just before the attack, Al-Wasat, alleging nepotism, published the names of relatives of government officials who were recipients of government scholarships to study abroad.

Hagi al-Jehafi, Al-Nahar
In July, Hagi al-Jehafi, editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Nahar, was wounded when he opened a file folder that was delivered to him at his office and it exploded. Al-Jehafi believes that a local sheikh whom he had criticized in his newspaper was behind the attack.

Nabil Subaie
On November 12, two men assaulted 27-year-old freelance journalist Nabil Subaie near Sana’a University while he was on his way home. One of the assailants stabbed Subaie twice in the back and once in the hand using a curved Yemeni dagger. The men fled in a blue Mazda without a license plate. Subaie had been a frequent critic of President Saleh’s policies, wrote about his son as a possible successor, and reported on government misdeeds.

Mujeeb Suwailih, Al-Arabiya, and Najib al-Sharabi, Al-Ekhbariya
On November 4, Mujeeb Suwailih, a cameraman for the pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya, and Najib al-Sharabi, a correspondent for the Saudi Arabia-based satellite channel Al-Ekhbariya, were covering a strike by employees of a public textile factory in Sana’a when they were attacked by Yemeni security officers. Suwailih was beaten when he refused to hand over his camera, suffering three broken ribs. Both journalists were detained for several hours at a nearby police station where they were threatened by the same officers who attacked them earlier.

• Mohammad Sadiq al-Odaini, Center for Training and Protecting Journalist Freedom
In December, Mohammad Sadiq al-Odaini, head of the independent Yemeni press freedom group the Center for Training and Protecting Journalist Freedom, was threatened at gunpoint by a man he recognized as a member of the security forces. A few days later the same man assaulted him along with two other attackers. Al-Odaini said he believed he was targeted because his organization’s annual report accused authorities of failing to investigate attacks on the press.

“These attacks are an affront to all Yemenis and a stain on Yemen’s international reputation,” said Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. “Months have gone by in some of these cases and we are still waiting for the government to find out who committed these crimes. Yemeni officials need to explain what they are doing to bring those responsible for these reprehensible crimes to justice. The failure to do so suggests official tolerance for these brazen attacks.”

Journalists in Yemen also face increasing legal harassment and other forms of government interference. The CPJ delegation expressed profound concern about a new draft press law currently before Yemen’s parliament. The proposed law spells out a range of bureaucratic controls and harsh restrictions on the media that include vaguely worded prohibitions such as a ban against offending the president or harming state interests. Newspaper may be suspended and journalists banned from their profession under the measure. The draft prescribes professional requirements to practice journalism, including membership in the country’s Journalists Syndicate and a minimum experience level. It also stipulates expensive capital requirements for launching publications.

“Any press law that restricts the free discussion of ideas and opinions, as this does, robs citizens of their right to know and is incompatible with a democratic society,” Marash said. “The world is watching. Yemen’s restrictions on the press are damaging its reputation and deterring badly needed foreign aid.”

The Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government aid agency, suspended Yemen from its program on November 8, citing corruption, fiscal irresponsibility, the absence of democratic reform, and a lack of press freedom. According to The Washington Post, the program “would have meant at least $20 million in development aid next year and hundreds of millions of dollars after that.”

Authorities have been active in using the existing law to prosecute journalists. In recent months, Yemeni courts have heard several new criminal lawsuits against press critics, and at least four newspapers have been suspended.

Authorities have also used extra-legal means to harass the press as well. Security services are believed responsible for recording a personal telephone conversation of a local correspondent for Al-Jazeera satellite channel and distributing it to journalists by e-mail this month. In recent years, Yemeni security services are also believed responsible for “cloning” outspoken Yemeni newspapers—establishing similarly titled and similar-looking newspapers to undercut them and confuse readers. On August 26, suspected state agents burglarized the offices of The Associated Press and the independent weekly Al-Nida which were in the same building at the time, stealing computers, cameras and other expensive equipment.

“Over the last 15 years, Yemen has boasted some of the region’s liveliest newspapers and the government has often been responsive to concerns about its press freedom record,” Campagna said. “But we are deeply disappointed by the government’s failure to put an end to this current crackdown on journalists. We call on President Saleh to assume a leadership role and ensure that investigations into violent attacks on journalists are carried out, that the current press law draft is scrapped, and that authorities cease their harassment and censorship of the press.”

After today’s press conference, Prime Minister Abdelqader Bajammal met with the CPJ delegation at his residence for more than an hour. The prime minister said that attacks against citizens are unacceptable but suggested that some of the assaults on journalists were staged to gain attention and were unrelated to their work. CPJ, however, welcomed Bajammal’s promise to thoroughly investigate the attacks and make the results public. While the prime minister disagreed with CPJ’s opposition to the restrictive press bill, he offered to withdraw it and urged CPJ to provide input to the parliamentary committee considering the legislation.