New Yemeni press court sentences, bans journalists

New York, November 2, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists urges Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to end the intensifying judicial and media campaign to silence critical journalists and eradicate press freedom.

On Saturday, the newly established Press and Publications Court in Sana’a sentenced Munir Mawari, a Washington-based Yemeni journalist and contributor to the independent weekly Al-Masdar, to two years in prison on charges of defaming the president, journalists told CPJ. The court also barred him for life from practicing journalism in Yemen. The court handed a suspended one-year jail term to Samir Jubran, editor of Al-Masdar, on the same charge and banned him from writing and running his newspaper for one year.

The case stems from a November 25, 2008, opinion piece in which Mawari called Saleh’s leadership style a kind of “weapon of mass destruction.”

Mawari, who was tried absentia, told CPJ that he discussed the “devastating impact” of a president “exercising absolute power and who refuses to be held accountable and prefers to see journalists taken to court instead of those involved in corruption.” He called the verdict a “message aimed at terrorizing journalists and preventing them from writing about the president.”

Al-Masdar said it will appeal the verdict. Yemeni journalists have questioned the legitimacy of the press court, which was established in May, saying the constitution makes no allowance for the creation of exceptional courts. They also said the professional bans handed down by the court on Saturday are not grounded in Yemeni law.

“This shameful verdict should be repealed and our colleagues’ right to do their jobs restored,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “The time has come for President Saleh to bring to an end the rising attacks on press freedom and incitement against critical journalists.”

Media outlets and journalists in Yemen have faced mounting government attacks throughout 2009 after clashes broke out between the military and armed protesters in southern parts of the country in late April. Southerners accuse the government of marginalizing them. Authorities also instituted extensive censorship and arrested journalists who insisted on covering the unrest or who were overtly critical of the government.

A smear campaign against Al-Jazeera journalists in Yemen also reflects deterioration in press freedom. The ruling party’s newspaper, Al-Mithaak, last week compared Ahmad al-Shalafi, Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Sana’a, to “Hitler’s minister of propaganda.”