Journalists worked in precarious conditions in which they were subjected to politicized criminal charges and censorship from government officials. A harsh press law set restrictions on coverage of the presidency, state security, and religion. Authorities kept particularly tight control on coverage of an insurgency led by tribal and religious figures in the northwestern Saada region.
Fighting between government and rebel forces in Saada flared several times before negotiations brought a lull in late summer. The government, which has considered the four-year-old conflict a serious threat to domestic security, limited access to the region and tolerated little critical news or commentary on the clashes.
In June, government critic Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani was sentenced to six years in prison on trumped-up charges of conspiring with Abdel Malik al-Hawthi, the rebel leader whose family has fought against government forces in Saada. Yemeni journalists told CPJ that the verdict was delivered largely in response to al-Khaiwani’s critical writing on his opposition news Web site, Al-Shoura.
Evidence against al-Khaiwani, who was originally charged in 2007, consisted of journalistic material such as photographs of rebel forces, notes related to an interview with a rebel leader, and news articles such as an al-Khaiwani piece that criticized the president, the journalist’s lawyer told CPJ. In subsequent hearings, the court focused on two CDs containing images of the fighting that were alleged to have been given to al-Khaiwani by a member of the al-Hawthi cell. The court also cited a government-monitored phone conversation between al-Khaiwani and a colleague in which the two discussed negotiations between the government and the rebels.
In September, after an international outcry, President Ali Abdullah Saleh issued a presidential pardon that allowed al-Khaiwani to go free. After his release, al-Khaiwani thanked CPJ and other international organizations for their advocacy on his behalf. The case underscored a recurring situation in Yemen. The government was concerned enough about its international image to reverse some of its egregious actions against the press–but remained ready to harass and jail troublesome journalists. Al-Khaiwani had been targeted repeatedly in recent years, including being threatened in 2007 for criticizing Saleh’s government and being jailed in 2004 on charges ranging from insulting the president to publishing false news.
Authorities directly censored critical news media. In April, Information Minister Hassan al-Lawzi withdrew the publishing license of the independent weekly Al-Wasat, alleging that the paper had harmed Yemen’s relations with Saudi Arabia. The license was restored within a few weeks by court order. (Other newspapers have been similarly punished in the past when alleged to have damaged relations with Yemen’s powerful, oil-rich neighbor.) Al-Wasat editor Jamal Amer, a 2006 CPJ International Press Freedom awardee, regularly published critical reports on government corruption, religious militants, and relations with Saudi Arabia. At the time the government pulled the paper’s license, Amer was also reporting on antigovernment protests in southern Yemen.
As more Yemenis gain access to online publications, the government has been more vigorous in policing critical news and commentary. Internet penetration remained very low–an estimated 300,000 Yemenis were online in 2008, a fraction of the country’s 22 million population–although the number has tripled in three years. In January, the government-owned Internet service provider blocked domestic access to several Yemeni news and opinion Web sites. Three Web sites became unavailable to domestic users on January 19, joining a list of at least five others that had disappeared in prior months. Veteran journalist Walid al-Saqaf said his site, the news aggregator YemenPortal, was among those blocked. He said he believed the government acted after the site posted videos depicting security forces firing on protesters in the southern city of Aden.
The government took action against a foreign journalist and his fixers. Willem Marx, a reporter with the U.S.-based television network HDNet, was detained July 21 as he was traveling to the ancient town of Marib, where Islamist opposition groups have clashed with government forces. Although Marx had obtained government permission to film in the country, he was interrogated by security agents in Sana’a and expelled the same day. His fixers, Ali Nasser Gaid al-Bokhaiti and Mohammed Ahmed Hassan al-Bokhaiti, were not as fortunate: The two were imprisoned without explanation. Hassan al-Bokhaiti was freed in September, but Gaid al-Bokhaiti was still being held in late year.
Authorities reported no progress in investigating a rash of violent attacks that occurred in 2005. Witnesses and evidence pointed to the involvement of state agents in a number of the assaults, CPJ found in a 2006 investigative report. Sporadic violence has been reported in the years since. CPJ and other press groups have faulted Yemen for perpetuating a culture of impunity in attacks on the press.
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