Government seizes newspaper offices in Yemen

New York, May 4, 2009–After confiscating thousands of copies of a critical independent newspaper, authorities laid siege today to the paper’s offices in Aden, Yemen. The daily, Al-Ayyam, has been covering the ongoing conflict in the country’s southern region. 

Bashraheel Bashraheel, general manager of Al-Ayyam, told CPJ that after three consecutive days of authorities confiscating thousands of copies of the newspaper, security forces today surrounded Al-Ayyam and prevented the distribution of all 70,000 copies of the paper. Staff members are allowed to leave the building but are being searched as they exit, Bashraheel said.

“We call on the authorities to end the siege of Al-Ayyam and to withdraw all its forces immediately,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Al-Ayyam and its staff are exercising their journalistic duty to cover an ongoing conflict. The government must not target them because of their coverage.”

Dozens of protesters gathered today in front of the besieged paper’s offices to protest the government’s action, with the police eventually dispersing the demonstrators, Al-Ayyam reported on its Web site. 

On May 1, an armed group that Bashraheel believes was acting on behalf of the authorities stopped a vehicle carrying copies of Al-Ayyam to the capital, Sana’a, and burned 16,500 copies, according to a statement by the newspaper. On Sunday, military checkpoints outside Aden prevented 50,000 copies of the newspaper from reaching readers in other parts of the country.

Bashraheel told CPJ that in light of the government’s actions and to curb financial losses he has been forced to suspend printing of Al-Ayyam indefinitely.

Harassment of Al-Ayyam staff has increased since early April as the newspaper has been covering military clashes between the government and an opposition group known as the Southern Movement, Bashraheel said. He said that his staff has received threatening phone calls and that one layout designer recently found a note on his apartment door threatening to “slit his throat” if he continued to work for Al-Ayyam.

In a press release issued today, the Aden-based Al-Watani newspaper announced that it had been notified by its contracted printing press that the Ministry of Information had ordered it to not print the publication until further notice. The Web site News Yemen quotes an unnamed ministry official as having said that the ministry will instruct printers to cease producing all “secessionist” newspapers. The same news item reported that it will confiscate all copies of six newspapers currently on the stands, including Al-Watani.

Since January 2007, dissatisfied groups in the south of the country have increasingly accused authorities of marginalizing the region, which merged with the north in 1990. Since early April there have been sporadic armed clashes between government forces and armed protesters in the south of the country. The latest such clash was today’s killing of a soldier in an ambush by armed men in the southern Lahaj province, The Associated Press reported