Attacks on the Press 2009: Yemen

Top Developments
• Government censors newspapers, establishes new press court.
• Two journalists jailed without charge; one missing after being abducted.

Key Statistic
8: Newspapers banned for periods beginning in May due to their coverage of unrest in the south.

Continuing a steady years-long decline, Yemen became one of the most repressive countries in the region for the press. Journalists covering clashes in the country’s restive south faced severe restrictions. Government repression reached its peak in May, when at least eight newspapers that had covered violent protests were barred from distribution, several papers faced criminal charges, and one paper came under direct attack from state security agents. Government officials established a special court for perceived news media offenses.


Main Index
• Regional Analysis:
Human rights coverage spreads despite government pushback
Country Summaries
Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Other developments

The Sana’a-based government sought to tamp down longstanding tensions in the country’s south, where demonstrators protested policies they saw as marginalizing the region’s residents and denying them public services. In late April—around the anniversary of the 1990 unification of north and south—conditions boiled over as government troops clashed with armed protesters. Following its past practice, the government moved aggressively to control the flow of information. An armed group believed to have acted on behalf of authorities burned more than 16,000 copies of the popular daily Al-Ayyam on May 1, Bashraheel Bashraheel, the paper’s general manager, told CPJ. Two days later, military authorities prevented distribution of the paper, he said. By May 4, security forces had surrounded the paper’s production plant and effectively barred it from publishing, Bashraheel said.

The Ministry of Information expanded its suppression of the news the same day, barring the sales of Sana’a-based Al-Masdar, Al-Ahali, Al-Diyar, Al-Mustaqila, Al-Nida, Al-Share, and Aden-based Al-Wattani and Al-Ayyam, according to press reports. All had covered unrest in the south in ways that were critical of the government. Information Minister Hassan Ahmed al-Luzi argued that the papers had violated the country’s press law by publishing articles that threatened national unity and “spread hatred and enmity among the united people of Yemen,” Yemen Times reported.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent a similar message when he addressed parliament on May 6. “If there is room to talk in the press then you have to publish kindness, love, and brotherhood. If there were mistakes in development or security or the judiciary, criticize those mistakes and there would be no objection, there is room for that. But the unity, freedom, democracy, revolution, the republic, and the constitution are national invariants that cannot be crossed,” he was quoted as saying in the state-run newspaper Al-Thawra.

Al-Ayyam remained shut in late year. The other newspapers resumed publication but faced sporadic censorship and harassment, according to local press reports. Authorities also took court action against several of the same newspapers in May. The Ministry of Information filed criminal complaints against Al-Masdar, Al-Wattani, Al-Diyar, Al-Nida, Al-Share, and Al-Ayyam on charges of inciting hatred and harming the unity and the interests of the country. The cases were pending in late year. Under the press code, editors of the papers could face up to one year imprisonment.

Government hostility against the press reached its peak on May 13 when security forces carried out an armed raid on the offices of Al-Ayyam in Aden, the main city in southern Yemen, the paper’s general manager, Bashraheel, told CPJ. Clashes between security agents and the newspaper’s guards lasted for about an hour, during which one passer-by was killed and two guards were injured. Security forces said they were trying to arrest Al-Ayyam Editor-in-Chief Hisham Bashraheel, his son Hani Bashraheel, and another staffer in relation to a 2008 case in which newspaper guards killed one of several assailants who were trying to take control of the paper’s offices. Mohammed Al-Baqwaly, Al-Ayyam’s lawyer, questioned the judiciary’s motivation in seeking the arrests given the government’s long record of censorship and harassment of the paper.

Amid protests from journalists and human rights advocates, the country’s High Judicial Council established a special court in May to try cases related to media and publishing offenses, according to local press reports. More than 150 cases, some dating to 2006, were immediately referred to the Press and Publications Court, according to local press reports. In late October, in one of its first rulings, the court 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 imposed a lifetime ban on 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 or running his newspaper for one year. The case stemmed from a November 2008 opinion piece in which Mawari called Saleh’s leadership style a “weapon of mass destruction.”

Mawari, who was tried in absentia, told CPJ that he discussed the “devastating impact” of a president who “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 would appeal the verdict. Yemeni journalists questioned the legitimacy of the press court, saying the constitution makes no allowance for the creation of exceptional courts. They also said the professional bans handed down by the court were not grounded in Yemeni law.

Two journalists were in jail when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. Security forces detained Fuad Rashid, editor-in-chief of the news Web site Mukalla Press, on May 4 in the southern city of Al-Mukalla, the news outlet reported. Authorities did not disclose the basis for the detention, although Mukalla Press had regularly covered unrest in the south.

Salah al-Saqldi, editor-in-chief of the Gulf Aden news Web site, was seized by security forces during a raid at his home in Khour Mikasr in Aden province on June 18, according to local news reports. Security forces confiscated his laptop and a camera. Gulf Aden had intensively covered the conflict in southern Yemen. According to local news reports, al-Saqldi was being held in a security services prison in Sana’a, but his family had not been allowed to see him. Authorities did not disclose any charges, according to local news reports.

Another journalist critical of the government disappeared. Muhammad al-Maqaleh, editor of Aleshteraki, a Web site affiliated with the opposition Socialist Party, was kidnapped by unidentified men on September 18, according to news accounts. Witnesses quoted in local news reports said that armed, masked men intercepted al-Maqaleh’s car in Sana’a, dragged him into their vehicle, and sped away. The week before, al-Maqaleh had posted an article condemning military airstrikes that killed 87 people and injured more than 100. The victims were internal refugees, having escaped ongoing fighting in Saada City. Al-Maqaleh’s whereabouts were unknown in late year.

Facing civil unrest not only in the south, authorities were acutely sensitive to any coverage they saw as critical of government actions. In July, the government launched a military operation against fighters with the Al-Huthi, a Shiite tribal group, in Saada region, northwest Yemen. The government has been fighting the group since 2004. In November, Saudi Arabia launched cross-border ground and air attacks against Al-Huthi rebels. Hundreds of civilians were killed and injured in those attacks, according to news accounts.

Al-Jazeera, which devoted extensive coverage to social unrest, was singled out by government leaders for criticism. “The Al-Jazeera channel has become a source for criticizing Yemeni society,” Masaad al-Lahibi, a member of parliament, was quoted in local press reports as saying in July. “It airs what is being provided to it by forces that are against Yemen and its blessed unity.”

 The station reported several cases of harassment and attacks. On June 22, for example, masked men stoned the station’s Aden correspondent, Fadel Mubarak, causing head injuries, journalists told CPJ. The assailants also stole Mubarak’s camera. A month later, an unknown caller contacted Al-Jazeera’s Sana’a office and left a threatening message for Bureau Chief Murad Hashem. “Tell the bureau chief that his death is imminent,” Hashem quoted the caller as saying.

Government repression also targeted critical news Web sites. The newspapers Al-Masdar, Al-Tagheer, and Al-Share’ said in May that their Web sites had been briefly blocked domestically. Arafat Mudabish, editor-in-chief of Al-Tagheer, told CPJ that he believed the site was targeted because of its coverage of the southern unrest. Mukalla Press, based in the southern province of Hadhramaut, was inaccessible in Yemen throughout the year.

International reporters descended in late year to cover the government’s response to the local branch of Al-Qaeda, which had sponsored a failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S.-bound airliner. Amid the country’s considerable civil unrest, Al-Qaeda’s activities had drawn little domestic coverage during the year.