Yemeni editors face criminal prosecution over critical reporting

New York, March 2, 2007–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by criminal defamation prosecutions of three Yemeni editors.

Independent weekly Al-Deyar Editor-in-Chief Abed al-Mahthari was charged with defaming Watani Bank for Trade and Investment; Editor Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani was charged with publishing false information about the Defense Ministry and defaming Armed Forces Moral Guidance Department Director Ali Hassan al-Shater; and independent Al-Wasat Editor Jamal Amer was charged with defaming the Religious Endowment Ministry and the military police.

“CPJ condemns criminal prosecution of independent journalists,” said Executive Director Joel Simon “We urge Yemen authorities to drop the prosecution of Abed al-Mahthari, Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani, and Jamal Amer, who were reporting on issues of public interest.”

Abed al-Mahthari is set to appear before the court in Yemen’s capital Sana’a on Saturday. His lawyer, Jamal Jaabi, told CPJ the charges stem from an article published on December 7, 2005, alleging the bank had mismanaged and embezzled their customers’ and shareholders’ funds. Several members of the bank’s board of directors are being prosecuted in connection with the bank’s collapse.

Yemeni authorities have repeatedly harassed al-Mahthari for his critical reporting and prohibited the national printing press from printing the paper. On February 13, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia to one-year in jail on charges of defaming a judge the paper accused of corruption in 2002.

Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani is set to appear before court on Saturday, as well. He was charged in late July 2006 following an article he published the prior month on his news Web site entitled, “Yemen intends to hand over the Badeea airport to Saudi,” which the Defense Ministry deemed damaging and harmful. The Yemeni government is sensitive about press reports on its relationship with Saudi Arabia, after it settled a decades-old border dispute in 2000.

Al-Khaiwani told CPJ that the press prosecutor’s office brought another charge against him in early August 2006, following an article he published in June, listing names of officials who had substantial debts to the now-defunct Watani Bank. Defense Ministry Director Hassan al-Shater, chief editor of military newspaper 26 September, felt defamed by his inclusion on the list.

Al-Khaiwani has been a frequent target of government harassment. In September 2004, he was jailed for criticizing the president and spent seven months in jail before being pardoned.

Jamal Amer, a 2006 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient and Mustafa Nasser, a journalist at the paper, are set to appear in court March 5. Amer told CPJ that the charges stem from an article published in Al-Wasat on June 19, 2006, accusing the Religious Endowment Ministry of corruption related to religious pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia. Al-Wasat printed the ministry’s response refuting the corruption claims on August 2, but three days later the press prosecutor’s office charged the editor and journalist.

If convicted, each journalist could face up to one year in jail or maximum fine of 10,000 riyals (U.S. $50) for each charge under the Yemeni press law, their lawyer said.

Since 2004, the Yemeni government has been combating a regional insurgency led by tribal and religious figures in the northwestern Saada region. The rebels are followers of cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Hawthi, who was killed in 2004 during an intensive military campaign, and belong to the banned Youthful Believers organization. Hundreds of civilians have been killed over the three-year conflict and thousands displaced. Yemeni authorities have imposed a media blackout since late January, preventing journalists from entering Saada to cover conflict in the region, according to local journalists. Read more in a CPJ report: