Yemeni  government cancels license of independent weekly

New York, April 7, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns an order by the Yemeni government this weekend to cancel the license of the independent weekly newspaper Al-Wasat.

On Saturday, Yemeni Information Minister Hassan al-Lawzi ordered the newspaper’s license terminated because the paper had damaged relations with Saudi Arabia, and violated technical provisions of the press law, according to local journalists and official press accounts.

A Yemeni government spokesman who asked that his name not be used told CPJ that the Information Ministry revoked Al-Wasat’s license because the paper had “published articles threatening national unity, and spreading messages that promote violence and hate. Yemen supports the freedom of the press that adheres to professional standards and practices.”

“Contrary to the government’s lofty statements in support of a free press such shameful acts of censorship have regrettably become the norm in Yemen,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the Yemeni authorities to reverse this flagrant measure immediately.”

The paper’s award-winning editor, Jamal Amer, told CPJ that he has received no formal notice from the authorities, and that he learned of the order from a news update he received by text message from the official Web site on Saturday. Amer said officials at the printing press he uses informed him that they were under orders not to print the paper, which publishes on Wednesdays.

In Sanaa today, a delegation from the Yemeni Press Syndicate met with al-Lawzi, who stood by the decision, a journalist-member of the delegation told CPJ. The minister reiterated the previously published reasons for the ban and added that the paper had harmed relations with Saudi Arabia, citing a recently published story in Al-Wasat alleging that Saudis were smuggling Yemeni children into the country for labor and sexual exploitation.

Amer and other journalists said they suspect that the decision to target the newspaper stems from its coverage of Saudi Arabia as well as its coverage of sensitive political issues in Yemen, including antigovernment protests that have taken place in southern Yemen in recent months.

In 2006, Amer was a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in recognition for his work amid threats, harassment, and physical assaults. In August 2005, the editor was seized by four men believed to be security agents, held for six hours and beaten, after he published an expose that fingered a number of government officials who had misused state scholarships to send their children to study abroad.

Established by Amer in 2004, Al-Wasat has aggressively reported on corruption and religious militancy, and has been particularly critical of Saudi Arabia. In recent weeks, Amer has been the target of two government-inspired criminal lawsuits in response to articles on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and one about an Israeli journalist, Orly Azoulay, who recently visited Saudi Arabia.

Before establishing Al-Wasat in 2004, Amer worked as a journalist for the opposition weekly Al-Wahdawi and was convicted of harming the public interest, offending King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and damaging relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The court temporarily banned Amer from working as a journalist in 2000.