• Special press and security courts are used to silence probing journalists.
• Redlines bar critical coverage of civil unrest, terrorism, corruption.
29: Days that reporter Abulelah Shaea was held incommunicado after being seized by security agents.
The government pursued a widening array of repressive tactics, prompting many journalists to say that press freedom conditions had reached their lowest point since the unification of the country’s north and south in 1990. Authorities continued to use long-standing practices of extrajudicial abduction, intimidation, threats, and crude censorship to control the news media. But as CPJ documented in a September special report, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government was also erecting an elaborate legal structure to further restrict coverage and provide a veneer of legitimacy for its actions.
THE PRESS: 2010
• Main Index
Middle East and North Africa:
• Suppression Under the
Cover of National Security
• Israel and the Occupied
• Other nations
The cabinet pushed an aggressive legislative agenda in parliament that, if passed, would set prohibitive financial barriers for broadcast and online news outlets, expand the definition of criminal defamation to include virtually any form of criticism of the president, and increase prison terms for so-called press offenses–in some cases, up to 10 years. The proposals came a year after the establishment of a Specialized Press and Publications Court, which has already heard dozens of criminal cases against journalists.
Many of the government’s anti-press actions have been carried out under the guise of national security. Following a failed Al-Qaeda attempt to blow up a commercial airliner en route to the United States in December 2009–a plot allegedly conceived in Yemen–world attention turned to this small, strategic country on the Arabian Peninsula. In January, high-level officials from two dozen regional and Western governments met in London to discuss ways to help Sana’a combat terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed that international assistance would not focus solely on security concerns but would also address human rights and rule of law. But Saleh’s government failed to undertake human rights improvements, and the international community did not hold it accountable. The government’s redlines, the unwritten but firmly established prohibitions against certain topics, extended into many areas of critical international interest: the war with Houthi rebels in the north, the repression of the largely peaceful Southern Movement, the failure to contain Al-Qaeda, and the widespread corruption within the country’s top leadership.
“The justification of combating terrorism has given the authorities an opportunity to expand the numerous security services, and this has diminished the role played by society, particularly journalists,” Mohammed al-Mekhlafi of the Yemen Observatory for Human Rights told CPJ during a research mission to Yemen in July. Others expressed similar concerns. “The West and particularly the United States are all eyes on terrorism, and the government is taking advantage of this situation,” said Jamal Amer, a 2006 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner and editor of the weekly Al-Wasat.
The government introduced three legislative proposals that would impose severe additional restrictions on free expression. In early year, Minister of Justice Ghazi al-Aghbari submitted to parliament amendments to the penal code as well as the Press and Publications Law. The government also put forward a new law to regulate broadcast and online media. All three proposals were pending in parliament in late year.
The penal code proposal would make it more difficult for opposition media, political parties, and political and social critics to speak out, CPJ’s review found. Prison terms would be increased–in some cases, doubled–for publishing material deemed as “false,” denigrating Islam, or insulting to the president, high-ranking officials, or foreign heads of state. The proposed amendments would also define these perceived offenses more loosely. Small fines would be replaced with uncapped monetary penalties.
Proposed changes to the Press and Publications Law were also contentious. Abdel Bari Taher, former head of the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate, noted in the independent weekly Al-Nidaa that the bill “retains all the drawbacks and defects of the old law, while preserving criminal articles and expanding them.” If passed, the amended press law would extend existing content restrictions to online media–a sector that has largely eluded government interference–and extend licensing requirements that now pertain to publications to individual journalists and vendors.
The government also introduced a bill to regulate television and radio broadcasters, online publications, and mobile news services. The Audio-Visual and Electronic Media Bill was depicted by the government as a liberalization measure that would promote private media ownership in a country where all television and radio stations are state-owned. But CPJ’s review of the proposed legislation shows it would impose such exorbitant registration fees that private broadcasters would be deterred. At the same time, the bill would impose licensing fees and extend state regulation to online outlets that now operate without such burdens. Article 33 states that online media–including news delivered via SMS, or short message service, on mobile phones, a sector dominated by private outlets–would be subjected to state control through a regulatory framework to be imposed by executive order.
Dozens of journalists were subjected to politicized court proceedings, frequently on antistate charges. In January, the Specialized Press and Publications Court sentenced Anisa Othman, a contributor to the independent weekly Al-Wasat, to three months in prison on charges of “insulting the president” in connection with 2007 articles about corruption. In May, the same court sentenced Hussein al-Laswas, editor of the news website Sana’a Press, to one year in prison on charges of “undermining national foundations, the revolution, and the republic.” Both journalists retreated to remote areas to avoid imprisonment, but they halted their journalistic work.
Uncertainty surrounded many criminal cases against journalists. In May, amid much publicity, Saleh issued what he called a “pardon” of all journalists. Although pardons typically apply only to those who have been convicted of crimes and have exhausted their appeals, a number of journalists facing pending charges were released from custody in the ensuing days. But no official explanation of the president’s “pardon” was issued, and no formal court orders followed. At least three journalists told CPJ that their criminal cases had gone dormant, but the charges had not been formally dismissed. Others said they had received contradictory information as to the status of their criminal charges. Official ambiguity is likely intentional: Several journalists with pending charges told CPJ that they were keeping a low profile in their professional work so as not to have their cases revived.
Authorities continued to use extrajudicial abduction and incommunicado detention. Mohamed al-Maqaleh, editor of the Yemeni Socialist Party news website Aleshteraki, was the target of a government-sponsored abduction in September 2009. After denying for five months that it was holding al-Maqaleh, the government finally disclosed in early 2010 that the journalist was indeed in state custody. Al-Maqaleh then faced criminal proceedings in two separate courts, including the special press court, before the cases were discontinued without resolution. He told CPJ that it was not clear whether the charges were actually dismissed or if they remain pending. The journalist had produced damning coverage of government airstrikes that killed close to 100 civilians and injured hundreds more in the ongoing war with Houthi rebels in the northwestern Saada region.
In July, armed men in civilian clothing snatched Abulelah Shaea, a freelance reporter and an expert on Islamist groups, off a busy Sana’a street in front of hundreds of onlookers and took him to an undisclosed location. The journalist was released within 24 hours, but not before being threatened and made to sign a document he was not allowed to read. He told CPJ that his coverage of national security issues put him on a collision course with authorities. Shaea was seized again in August, and held incommunicado for 29 days before being presented in court. He was vaguely accused of “planning to carry out terrorist acts” and “providing media support to Al-Qaeda leadership,” according to news reports. Journalists and lawyers who saw him in court reported seeing evidence that he had been abused. He remained in custody when CPJ conducted its annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.
On August 26, uniformed police attacked journalists covering a protest against extrajudicial detentions in front of the chief prosecutor’s office in Sana’a. Al-Hurra correspondent Hassan Abed was beaten after refusing to surrender his camera and another journalist was roughed up for using her mobile phone to take pictures of the protest, journalists told CPJ. At another protest on September 1, this time in front of the president’s offices, police barred Al-Jazeera and Al-Hurra camera operators from filming. Censorship also occurred in March, when authorities confiscated equipment that enabled Al-Jazeera and Al-Hurra to beam live footage from restive southern Yemen. The equipment was eventually returned.
The government continued to enforce a crude publishing ban against Al-Ayyam, an Aden-based independent daily run by the influential Bashraheel family. Al-Ayyam, once the country’s highest-circulation publication, reaching more than 70,000 readers, was shut down during a violent government siege in 2009.
Police and security personnel surrounded Al-Ayyam‘s compound again in January after journalists from a variety of outlets organized a sit-in outside the banned daily’s offices. Again, the confrontation ended in violence as government forces used machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades against the compound. Hisham Bashraheel, the paper’s editor-in-chief, and his two sons, sports editor Hani and executive manager Mohammad, were taken into custody. Hisham was held for three months on numerous antistate charges, including “instigating separatism” and “inciting violence,” while Hani and Mohammad were held for four months apiece on charges of “forming an armed gang” in relation to the January confrontation. The cases were pending in late year.
In September, following a research mission to Yemen, CPJ released a special report on the deterioration of press freedom in the country. Government officials refused to meet with CPJ during the trip, and did not respond to written inquiries. After the report received extensive media coverage, Yemen’s official news agency published a brief story claiming CPJ’s findings were “incorrect and distorted.” It did not elaborate.