Journalists covering a rebel insurgency and government corruption were subjected to a frightening array of violent attacks and politically motivated court cases. Threats against independent journalists continued at an alarming rate, taking on an almost routine air. Perpetrators, for the most part, went unpunished.
Since 2004, the government has been combating a regional insurgency led by tribal and religious figures in the northwestern Saada region. Until a tenuous cease-fire was reached in June, hundreds of civilians had been killed and thousands displaced during the three-year conflict. Yemeni authorities continued to respond aggressively toward journalists who tried to report independently on the fighting. Government forces prevented journalists from entering the region to cover the conflict, effectively imposing a media blackout.
At least one journalist became ensnared in the government’s attempt to stop coverage of the conflict. In June, in one of the year’s most troubling press freedom incidents, Yemeni authorities stormed the home of Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of an opposition news Web site and former editor of the online newspaper Al-Shoura. Al-Khaiwani was hauled before a State Security Court on vague terrorism charges that carried a possible death penalty.
In court, the government made a slew of unsubstantiated accusations, reinforcing the belief among Yemeni journalists and political observers that the editor’s
arrest was an attempt to punish him for his unrelenting criticism of the fight against rebels in Saada, as well as his writing about government nepotism. The preliminary evidence against al-Khaiwani consisted of photographs of the fighting in Saada, an interview and contact with a rebel leader, and news articles, including one written by al-Khaiwani that criticized President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Al-Khaiwani’s case took a dangerous twist in July when, following his release pending trial, several gunmen abducted him as he attempted to hail a taxi. The assailants threatened him, beat him, and tried to break his fingers, CPJ sources said. The gunmen also threatened to kill the journalist and his family if he wrote another word against the president or the country’s national unity, those sources said.
A spike in attacks against journalists corresponded with the independent media’s increasing assertiveness. During the last three years, opposition newspapers have smashed political taboos by criticizing rampant government corruption, the war in Saada, Saleh’s policies, and the president’s perceived plan to have his son Ahmed succeed him. Though small in circulation, these papers represent one the few avenues of dissent in Yemen, where political parties are weak and electronic media are firmly under the state’s control.
Editor-in-Chief Naif Hassan of the independent weekly Al-Sharaa told CPJ that, in August, several armed men in two army jeeps with military license plates stormed the paper’s offices and threatened to kill him. It was unclear what prompted the raid, although journalists at the paper suspect it was connected to a recent criminal complaint filed by the Yemeni Ministry of Defense over Al-Sharaa’s coverage of the conflict in Saada.
In March, armed men accosted freelance columnist Mohamed al-Maqaleh on a street in the capital, Sana’a, holding him at gunpoint and warning him against criticizing the government in his writings. On September 2, Omar Bin Fareed, a columnist for the Aden-based daily Al-Ayyam, was abducted by gunmen as he sat at a restaurant eating dinner; the assailants grabbed Fareed, shoved him into a waiting car, and beat him for several hours before dumping him in the desert in the early hours of the morning. Al-Ayyam reported that it traced one of the cars used in the assault to the office of a local military commander. Fareed said he believed the abduction was in reprisal for his writings about local officials.
The government has been under increasing domestic pressure, with a debilitated economy, a restive rural population, declining living standards, and high unemployment. Police attacked or barred journalists trying to report on the rising number of public protests. As in past years, Yemeni officials failed to issue public expressions of concern over these violent attacks against the press. On the contrary, it denied any problems existed.
Columnist al-Maqaleh, Abdullah al-Wazeer, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Balagh, and Saddam al-Ashmouri, a freelance reporter for the English-language weekly Yemen Times, were assaulted by security forces in October while covering an opposition rally in Sana’a. Al-Ayyam reported a spike in attacks on its journalists beginning in May, with several reporters beaten, detained, and threatened. Security forces seized cameras from its reporters and barred them from covering protests. In May, municipal security guards visited Al-Ayyam reporter Abdul Hafez Mugab at his office and threatened him over his coverage of alleged financial corruption in the local government.
Those who abducted and attacked journalists enjoyed widespread impunity for their actions, as they had in the past. In January, CPJ wrote to Saleh one year after his government pledged to a CPJ delegation visiting Sana’a that it would investigate the brutal assaults against the press. A year later, however, those responsible for the attacks continued to evade justice. Government investigations have been incomplete or not seriously pursued, CPJ research shows. In only two of the five cases that CPJ brought to the government’s attention did authorities identify suspects and initiate legal action. One of those cases was dismissed, and the other was pending in late year, with the suspects free.
Outspoken journalists continued to face the threat of judicial harassment in politically motivated court cases. Yemen’s judiciary—which is headed by the president—is not independent, and outspoken journalists are often at the mercy of politicized judges. Under Yemen’s harsh press law, penal code, and other statutes, journalists face prison terms, fines, and professional bans in connection with their published work. Coverage of corruption and nepotism frequently triggers judicial retaliation.
In an unusual move, one case was referred to the prosecutor’s office specializing in national security and terrorism cases. On July 7, the Ministry of Defense filed a complaint against the weekly Al-Sharaa after the paper published a controversial series on the conflict in Saada that alleged, among other things, that a known terrorist group was fighting alongside the Yemeni army and training tribal volunteers to fight in the conflict. An editor and two reporters faced several years in jail.
The government retained its firm grip over the influential broadcast media, which continued to strictly reflect government views. Cyberspace became a forum for independent news, but the government increasingly censored content. Authorities banned several news sites and chat forums during the year. According to the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, authorities blocked access to the news sites Al-Shoura and Aleshteraki because of their reports on the conflict in Saada. The daily Al-Ayyam reported that access to its Web site was briefly blocked within Yemen on September 2.
Critical bloggers, including those based outside the country, were also censored. Access to U.S. journalist Jane Novak’s Web site, Armiesofliberation, which is frequently critical of the Yemeni government, was repeatedly blocked inside Yemen.