In Yemen, critical journalist disappears

New York, September 25, 2009—The Committee to Protect journalists calls on Yemeni authorities to clarify the circumstances of the disappearance and current whereabouts of Muhammad al-Maqaleh, editor of Aleshteraki, a Web site affiliated with the opposition Socialist Party. Al-Maqaleh was detained by unidentified men on September 18 in Sana’a, according to local news reports. 

A local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told CPJ that although many independent and opposition Web sites have covered the ongoing military offensive in the northwestern town of Saada, Aleshteraki’s coverage has been the most comprehensive. He also said that the site has been blocked frequently inside Yemen. Al-Maqaleh is vocal critic of the government’s attack on the region, according to local press reports.

Two Yemeni rights groups, human rights group Hud and journalists’ group Women Journalists Without Chains, covered the disappearance on their Web sites. Both directly accuse security forces of being behind the detention. Multiple local news sites also report possible government involvement, citing a history of similar incidents.

“The government must disclose all the information it has about the disappearance of Muhammad al-Maqaleh,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “Al-Maqaleh was writing critically about the government’s handling of the conflict in Saada.”

Al-Maqaleh’s disappearance came after Aleshteraki posted, on September 15, graphic pictures of civilian victims of airstrikes in the Saada region where the military has been battling rebels, local journalists told CPJ. Since 2004, regular battles have erupted several times between the Shiite al-Huthi rebels and government troops in the northwestern region of Yemen. The rebels accuse the government of neglecting the region and demand more autonomy. The latest round of fighting broke out in mid-August, according to media reports. Dozens of civilians have died and thousands have been displaced, according to humanitarian agencies. 

In 2007, plainclothes men in an unmarked vehicle abducted, threatened, and severely beat journalist and editor Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani. At the time, other journalists told CPJ that they believed government agents were behind his detention. CPJ has documented similar incidents in 2005 and 2006.

On Thursday, journalists in Sana’a staged a third sit-in protest demanding authorities disclose the fate of al-Maqaleh, according to local press reports. The sit-ins were organized by the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate. In April 2008, al-Maqaleh was imprisoned for two months for “mocking and insulting the judiciary” after he burst into laughter during trial of renowned Yemeni journalist Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani.

In recent months, media outlets and journalists in Yemen have faced unprecedented attacks by the government after clashes broke out between the military and armed protesters in southern parts of the country in late April. Dissatisfied southerners accuse the government of marginalizing the region. Authorities also instituted extensive censorship and arrested journalists to curb press coverage and silence opposition voices.