Freedom fighters in the Arab press

Clarence Page
Chicago Tribune
January 29, 2006

SAN`A, Yemen: A lot of people were alarmed to see that Palestinians gave the terrorist Hamas organization an upset victory last week over the reputedly corrupt Fatah in parliament elections. But, in this part of the world, any change of power through ballots instead of bullets is a good day.

The big news just happened to find me also in the Middle East, but at the other end of the Arabian Peninsula, trying to spread a little more democracy through freedom of the press, particularly to some courageous journalists in terrorism-tainted Yemen.

Americans need to be on their side. Consider it to be part of the war against terrorism.

To most Americans, Yemen is the faraway place where suicide bombers killed 17 American sailors aboard the USS Cole in 2000. Like Afghanistan, its vast rural areas are ruled by tribal warlords who obey the central government only when they feel like it.

It is also an oil-producer whose oil wealth fails to reach much of its woefully poor and illiterate populace. A lot of the people in places like Yemen view America as a faraway superpower whose money and arms prop up their country’s greedy elites. Unfortunately, that impression too often is correct.

Yet, despite its poverty and high illiteracy, Yemen has a freer press than the rest of the region and it has spawned an impressive array of outspoken and politically diverse newspapers. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who rose to the presidency 27 years ago–after a string of assassinated leaders–has kept his life and job largely by balancing interests as diverse as warlords, religious leaders and his country’s feisty press.

Unfortunately, in recent months journalists brave enough to report or criticize corruption in Saleh’s government have been assaulted, kidnapped, arrested, threatened, burglarized, vandalized and otherwise intimidated, sometimes with clues pointing to government involvement. Saleh’s government has closed five newspapers for printing even one story it did not like, proposed a new restrictive press law and dragged its heels on investigating criminal acts against journalists.

That’s what brought me to Yemen’s 1,000-plus-year-old capital on a mission for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists with Dave Marash, who has left “ABC News” to anchor the soon-to-be-launched satellite channel Al-Jazeera International, the new English language news channel, and Joel Campagna, the committee’s senior program coordinator. Marash and I are committee board members.

All three of us were impressed with the courage of journalists like Jamal Amer, editor of weekly Al-Wasat, who was beaten, abducted and terrorized with a gun by men in a car that witnesses say had government license plates

Or Haji al-Jehafi, editor of the weekly Al-Nahar, who was wounded by a letter bomb in his office.

Whether these assaults and others were instigated by the government, renegade thugs or angry sheiks, like one whom al-Jehafi’s paper criticized, the government needs to investigate the cases. High-ranking government ministers agreed–after arguing with us about “uneducated” journalists and Yemen’s “still young and growing” democracy. We’ve heard those tunes before. Even when you believe in free speech and free press as ideals, it’s hard to stomach when it is aimed at you.

Fortunately, while I find much to question about the wisdom of President Bush’s gunslinger diplomacy, Yemen is one place where it has had a measurably positive impact. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Yemenis feared and, in the case of certain anti-Saleh elements, hoped that Yemen would be next on Bush’s invasion list after Afghanistan.

Saleh abruptly reversed his earlier bellicosity toward Bush and joined the “war on terror.” He also vowed to implement democratic, human rights and anti-corruption reforms that could starve the resentments that feed terrorist uprisings.

A big test for Saleh and the Bush administration came in November when a major U.S. aid agency, the Millennium Challenge Corp., suspended aid to Yemen, citing corruption, abuses of press freedom and other problems. The grant would have meant more than $300 million in aid money over the next four years. The World Bank took similar actions.

That’s a welcome change of policy since the Cold War days, when foreign aid money too often was used to bribe some pretty horrendous dictators and kleptocrats, no questions asked, as long as they allied with us against the Soviets. In today’s war against terror, we have no excuse to aid any government whose policies undermine freedoms and grow the frustrations that allow terrorism to take hold.

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