Journalist kidnapped in Yemen as conflict intensifies

New York, May 7, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for the immediate release of Yemeni journalist Waheed al-Sufi, who has been held for more than a month by unidentified kidnappers. Al-Sufi is the editor-in-chief of the Yemeni weekly newspaper Al-Arabiya and its website, Al-Arabiya Online, according to news reports and his family.

Al-Sufi, which is the journalist’s professional name–his legal name is Waheed Mohammed Naji Haider–was at a post office in Sana’a on April 6 with his cousin, Fahmy al-Ezzi, to pay the phone bill for Al-Arabiya, according to news reports. Al-Ezzi told CPJ that two gunmen in civilian clothes heard al-Sufi saying he wanted to pay the phone bill for the newspaper and asked him if he worked for the pan-Arab Saudi TV channel of the same name. Al-Sufi said he worked for the Yemeni news outlet Al-Arabiya, which has no relation to the Saudi channel. Al-Ezzi told CPJ the men put al-Sufi in a white Land Cruiser with no license plates and drove away.

No group has publicly claimed to have al-Sufi, and his family has not received demands for ransom or information about his health or whereabouts, according to news reports. Al-Ezzi told the Yemeni news website Al-Etihadiya News that he holds the Houthi movement responsible for the safety of the journalist because they claim to hold authority over the country.

Houthi rebels took control of the capital, Sana’a, and other cities in September 2014, forcing the government to resign, according to news reports. On March 25, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of 10 countries began launching air strikes, targeting territory controlled by the Houthi militia, in an attempt to restore the exiled president who fled Yemen in March 2015 as the Houthis increased control over the country. After the air strikes began, outlets critical of the Houthis or affiliated with coalition governments have been raided by Houthi forces and their staff temporarily detained, according to CPJ research.

Al-Ezzi told CPJ that his cousin had recently published articles on the Houthis as well as several reports discussing military operations. He said Al-Sufi was also out documenting bombing sites with his personal camera a few hours before he was kidnapped and he still had it with him when he was taken.

“We call on the Houthi movement to guarantee freedom of the press and the safety of all journalists in the territories they control,” said Jason Stern, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa research associate. “Whoever is holding Waheed al-Sufi must release him immediately. All sides of the conflict in Yemen must remember that journalists are civilians and should not face reprisal while upholding their duty.”

The spiraling, multi-faceted conflict in Yemen has led to a sharp decline in press freedom, as every side in the conflict has targeted journalists whose coverage they found unflattering as part of their efforts to control the narrative coming out of the country. CPJ has documented a steady rise in the level of violence directed against journalists. Last month, at least four staff members of satellite TV station Yemen Today were killed when their station in Sana’a was hit by Saudi air strikes, according to news reports and the station.

In recent weeks, Houthi security forces and their allies have detained and released at least two journalists in relation to their work. On April 17, Norwegian freelance journalist Raymond Lidal was released from Houthi custody after being detained for three weeks in Sana’a, news reports said. Lidal was evacuated from Yemen with several other foreign citizens, a Norwegian foreign ministry spokesman told news outlets.

On April 29, Mohammed Aida, a cameraman for Yemen Digital Media, a media production company, was arrested while filming in Sana’a, according to news reports. He was released on May 2, Yemen Digital Media General Manager Taha al-Mamary told CPJ.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This alert has been updated to reflect the correct date that President Hadi fled Yemen.