Yemen’s press found itself on the defensive as a string of chilling attacks occurred against a backdrop of armed conflict, economic upheaval, and public protests. The release of imprisoned editor Abdel Kareem al-Khawaini was a bright spot in an otherwise troubled year that saw harassment and violent attacks against journalists on the rise.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh pardoned al-Khawiani, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura, in March. Al-Khawiani spent nearly seven months in jail for publishing opinion articles that condemned the government’s fight against Hussein Badreddin al-Hawthi, a rebel cleric who led a three-month uprising in northern Saada before being killed. Al-Khaiwani’s plight drew condemnation from local journalists and international press freedom advocates, who together waged a months-long campaign seeking the editor’s release. In February, a CPJ delegation headed by Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Clarence Page and former Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times managing editor Gene Roberts met with Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, Abdulwahab Abdulla al-Hajjri, to express alarm at al-Khawaini’s imprisonment. The delegation pointed out that Saleh had promised to abolish prison penalties for journalists just three months before al-Khaiwani’s jailing.
Al-Khawiani’s release gave some impetus to government efforts to reform the tough press law that sets prison penalties. The Ministry of Information said in April that it had drafted amendments to the law, and Parliament was completing details in late 2005. Yemeni press reports said the measure could abolish prison sentences for most press offenses, but it could also create a host of new restrictions and fines.
In many instances, however, legal harassment was not the most pressing fear for journalists. Police, security forces, armed men, and bodyguards for local officials attacked reporters in several documented cases. In a shocking case reported in August, four men seized Jamal Amer, editor of the weekly Al-Wasat, and bundled him into a waiting car. Amer said the men punched him, accused him of getting funding from the U.S. and Kuwaiti embassies, and warned him about defaming unspecified “officials.” Amer was released about four hours later. He said he believed a car used in the abduction belonged to the Yemeni Republican Guard, a special military division headed by Saleh’s son, based on the numeric configuration of its license plate. Amer’s newspaper has been a harsh critic of the Yemeni government and frequently publishes stories about corruption, nepotism, and government misconduct. One story named relatives of government officials who had received government scholarships to study abroad.
Orchestrated attacks against journalists were reported throughout the year. In January, assailants lobbed hand grenades and opened fire on the Sana’a office housing the news Web site Al-Motamar, which belongs to the ruling General People’s Congress. Religious extremists were suspected in the attack, but no arrests were made. In July, Haji al-Jehafi, editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Nahar, was wounded when a letter bomb addressed to him exploded. Al-Jehafi said he had received threats from “an influential social figure” criticized in Al-Nahar, the English-language weekly Yemen Times reported. Yemeni journalists complained that officials showed little interest in preventing or seriously investigating such attacks.
Press conditions worsened in July when rioting erupted in Sana’a after the government withdrew fuel subsidies. Reporters for pan-Arab satellite stations and other journalists were arrested while covering the unrest, and officials warned news organizations not to print or broadcast images of the rioting. An Associated Press reporter said police had confiscated his camera, and satellite broadcasters confirmed that Yemeni officials had prohibited them from using state facilities to send their reports.
Elsewhere in the country, fighting persisted in the northwest city of Saada, where rebels led by al-Hawthi’s father continued to battle the Yemeni army. Journalists said access to the region was difficult due to the violence and army blockades. Some foreign reporters who sought entry encountered resistance from authorities. On April 3, Yemeni authorities detained freelance journalists James Brandon, a Briton, and Shane Bauer, an American; brothers Munif and Munaf Damesh, who were working as fixers; and the Dameshes’ uncle, Naif Damesh, who was the group’s driver. The five were detained at an army checkpoint as they were leaving Saada. Brandon and Bauer were released 12 hours later, but their fixers were held for several weeks without charge or access to legal counsel and their families.
As the year came to a close, reporters continued to be harassed and violently attacked. In September, Yemeni air force officials detained reporter Khaled al-Hammadi and held him for two days in the town of Marib, in eastern Yemen, al-Hammadi told the UAE-based Gulf News in an interview. The officials had been angered over an article he had written describing crashes involving military planes. Al-Hammadi, who reports for the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, was released after pledging not to write about the military without permission, the paper said.
The following month, Mujeeb Suwailih, a cameraman for the pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya, and Najib Al-Sharabi, a news correspondent for the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al-Ekhbariyya, were beaten by Yemeni security forces while covering a strike by employees of a public textile factory over unpaid wages in Sana’a. Suwailih was struck repeatedly after he refused to hand over his camera, suffering internal bleeding, three broken ribs, and severe bruising on his legs, according to Al-Arabiya. The Yemeni Ministry of Interior said it would investigate, but no officer was immediately held responsible.