Presidential elections provided the backdrop for a series of troubling attacks against Yemen’s increasingly vocal independent and opposition press. As expected, President Ali Abdullah Saleh extended his nearly three decades in power by another six years, but the run-up to the September vote saw an upsurge in violence, intimidation, and legal harassment, along with a smear campaign directed by the state-controlled press against independent journalists.
Yemen’s outspoken press is one of the country’s most important centers of dissent and political debate, and over the last two years, it has become noticeably bolder in exposing high-level corruption and tackling sensitive political issues. Newspapers questioned the wisdom of Saleh staying in power, and they challenged the grooming of the president’s son, Ahmed, as his successor. Some criticized Yemeni officials for supporting religious militant groups at the same time Saleh cast himself as an ally in Washington’s war on terrorism. Others criticized the president for harshly combating a regional insurgency led by tribal and religious figures in the northern Saada region that began in 2004. Authorities and suspected state agents responded aggressively to the critical coverage.
A series of brutal, unsolved assaults against independent journalists in 2005 prompted CPJ to send a delegation that included board members Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Dave Marash of Al-Jazeera English to the capital, Sana’a, in January. Journalists, human rights lawyers, and civil-society activists described a climate of intimidation and mounting restrictions on Yemeni journalists. In six cases of violent attacks documented by CPJ in 2005, the Yemeni government failed to conduct serious investigations or bring perpetrators to justice, while officials conspicuously failed to denounce the assaults. Witnesses and evidence point to involvement by government forces and suspected state agents in a number of assaults. Those targeted were journalists who covered protests, reported on official corruption, criticized the president or government policies, or discussed the possibility of Saleh’s son becoming president.
Yemeni officials who met with CPJ in January pledged to investigate attacks on the press, but they avoided explicitly denouncing the assaults on journalists. During a contentious meeting with the CPJ delegation, Prime Minister Abdelqader Bajammal said attacks against any Yemeni citizen were unacceptable, but he suggested that the assaults on journalists were unrelated to their work and had been staged to gain attention. “Some people are creating problems against themselves,” Bajammal said. “They want to appear as fighters for press freedom. A journalist is drunk and then he clashes with people.”
Despite dismissing the attacks, Bajammal promised that the government would investigate and make its results public. Yet by year’s end, no findings were forthcoming, and attacks continued apace.
Qaed al-Tairi, a journalist for the Socialist Party weekly Al-Thawri, told CPJ that several men kidnapped and assaulted him in March in apparent retaliation for his writings. He said an assailant attacked him with an electric prod, while another attempted to break the fingers of his writing hand. They told him his column about local political factions had crossed “red lines” intended to prevent criticism of public figures, and that he risked death by continuing to write the column. The perpetrators remained at large.
In April, Jamal Amer, editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Wasat, who was abducted and brutally assaulted by suspected government agents in August 2005 after writing about high-level corruption, continued to face intimidation and harassment. On April 10, a known political security officer and four other men asked Amer’s neighbors to identify the editor’s apartment, provide the cell phone numbers of his children, name the schools his children attended, and provide the license plate of his car, Amer told CPJ. The visit came while Amer was traveling in the United States. Amer’s U.S. trip prompted the state-controlled newspaper Al-Mithaq to accuse him of being an agent of the West. In November, Amer was awarded CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in recognition of his commitment to independent journalism amid threats and harassment.
Also in April, Abed al-Mahthari, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Al-Deyar, said he was targeted by suspected weapons traffickers in Saada, near the Saudi border, after he had investigated weapons trafficking and received several death threats as a result. Al-Mahthari said his car was being driven by a friend on April 19 when several gunmen took up pursuit. The assailants, apparently believing they had followed the editor, forced their way into the friend’s house, threatened the friend’s family at gunpoint, and stole the car, al-Mahthari said. The friend obtained the license plate of the perpetrators’ car, and al-Mahthari reported it to the police. The attackers were not apprehended.
Yemeni journalists continued to face the threat of government legal action or spurious lawsuits for their critical coverage. Several journalists fell victim to an international wave of government reprisals related to the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that caused outrage across the Muslim world after they first appeared in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. Mohammed al-Asaadi, editor-in-chief of the English-language Yemen Observer; Abdulkarim Sabra, managing editor and publisher of Al-Hurriya; Yehiya al-Abed, a reporter for Al-Hurriya; and Kamal al-Aalafi, editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language Al-Rai al-Aam, were all charged with violating a press law provision that prohibits “printing, publishing, circulating, or broadcasting … anything that prejudices the Islamic faith and its lofty principles or belittles religions or humanitarian creeds.” The journalists were detained for several days and their publications suspended. Al-Aalafi was convicted in November and sentenced to a year in prison; he was free on appeal. The next month, a Sana’a court fined al-Asaadi 500,000 rials (US$2,850). Sabra and al-Abed received suspended terms in December.
Meanwhile, other prosecutions moved steadily through the courts. In July, a Sana’a court ordered the opposition weekly Al-Wahdawi to pay 500,000 rials in compensation to the Ministry of Defense, fined the paper 50,000 rials (US$285), and banned Editor-in-Chief Ali Saqqaf from practicing journalism for six months. The case against Al-Wahdawi stemmed from an August 2005 article alleging improprieties by members of the Republican Guard in taking over land in Dhamar province. The Ministry of Defense, which brought the case against Al-Wahdawi, accused the newspaper of revealing military secrets. Saqqaf told CPJ he intended to appeal the ruling. At the time, the paper faced nine other trials stemming from its reporting on government corruption.
In other court cases, Al-Thawri faced 13 defamation cases–the largest number against a single paper, according to press freedom lawyers.
During the year, the Yemeni parliament debated a press bill that threatened increased restrictions. Government officials touted the measure as a step forward for press freedom because it removed provisions from the 1990 law that stipulated jail terms for purported press offenses. But Yemeni lawyers noted that the change would be irrelevant since journalists would still face jail time under provisions of the country’s penal code. The draft prescribed stiffer professional requirements to practice journalism, including membership in the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, and it stipulated that nonjournalists could not work in the press. It also demanded expensive capital requirements for launching publications. Potential fines also drew concern. The draft before parliament did not specify the amounts of potential fines, and journalists feared that exorbitant penalties would be inserted by lawmakers or left to the discretion of judges under the sway of the executive branch.
Aside from legal means, authorities have resorted to dirty tricks against the press. Security agents were believed to be responsible for several incidents, including a January case in which a recording of a private telephone conversation between Al-Jazeera correspondent Ahmed al-Shalafi and his wife was distributed to senior Al-Jazeera staff in Doha, Qatar, and to journalists in Yemen. Al-Shalafi was said to have discussed potentially embarrassing personal matters. Journalists interpreted the recording as an attempt to get al-Shalafi fired; they suspected al-Shalafi had angered Yemeni authorities by interviewing the kidnappers of Italian tourists and by reporting on corruption and human rights abuses.