Shiite rebels known as Houthis rally against Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on August 11. (AP/Hani Mohammed)
Shiite rebels known as Houthis rally against Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on August 11. (AP/Hani Mohammed)

Yemeni journalists: ‘Our mouths are gagged’

In March 2014, Sana’a University media student Hisham al-Yousifi stood next to Dar al-Hajar, a royal palace built on the precipice of a rock formation just outside the capital, and announced to the video camera, “Here, there are a lot of tourists!” But there were no tourists, just his friends barely failing to hold back their giggling as they pretended to be Europeans visiting the extraordinary historic site.

A year later, Al-Yousifi would be arrested by pro-Houthi forces along with eight other journalists and activists, all taken together from the same hotel in Sana’a.

According to numerous friends and colleagues of the detainees, no one knows exactly where they are held or if they face any charges. But all agree the arrests on June 9 were the most prominent example of how journalists and activists in Yemen are being detained in record numbers by the rebel Ansar Allah movement (commonly known as the Houthis) and their allies now in control of much of Yemen. Meanwhile, an unprecedented number of journalists have been killed in recent months as a result of bombing by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis and, separately, the targeting of journalists by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The crackdown comes at a time when belligerents are fighting not only over territory and power, but also for the control of information and how their fellow Yemenis understand the conflict. And with few international journalists able to enter the country, the silencing of the local media comes as the world especially depends on local reporting to grasp the conflict’s complexities.

It did not have to be this way. After enduring more than three decades of censorship, Yemen’s press should have flourished after President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced his resignation in November 2011 in the face of months of massive protests. But like in so many other Arab countries after that period, hopes for greater freedoms including for the press were dashed.

Before 2011 it had been clear which red lines President Saleh considered inviolable, and journalists were largely able to understand the risks of crossing them. But with the collapse of Saleh’s presidency came a new threat environment, in which red lines and those who had the guns to enforce them proliferated, as one Yemeni journalist described it to CPJ in 2013.

In one harrowing incident in April 2013, Al-Masdar graphic designer Tawfiq al-Mansouri found an explosive device placed at the entrance to the newspaper’s office building, the daily reported. Police were able to defuse the bomb without any casualties. Al-Mansouri, like Al-Yousifi, would be among the nine arrested by the Houthis on June 9 this year and held to this day.

The attempted bombing of the Al-Masdar building came as increasing numbers of journalists were kidnapped or received death threats in 2013 and 2014. But when the Houthi movement backed by Saleh loyalists took over Sana’a in September, the group began to consolidate the power diffused after Saleh’s fall and, as a result, sharpen and enforce the red lines. In the months after the fall of Sana’a, CPJ documented a spike in equipment confiscations, temporary detentions, and beatings of journalists covering anti-Houthi protests.

The downward slide quickened on March 25. The Houthi-controlled Ministry of Information warned that outlets may be closed if they fan sectarianism, publish false news, or insult “the revolution of our proud people.” That night Saudi Arabia announced it had begun an air campaign against Houthi positions in cooperation with a coalition of 10 countries to restore Saleh’s successor, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, to power. Within the next few days, Houthi gunmen raided and tried to shut down independent or oppositional news outlets in Sana’a. Dozens of websites were also blocked by Yemen Net, the country’s primary Internet provider under the umbrella of the Houthi-controlled Public Telecommunication Corporation.

Many journalists, including two international journalists, were detained temporarily by Houthi forces and their allies before being let go, usually within a few days of their detentions. Others, like Waheed al-Sufi, the editor-in-chief of the Yemeni weekly newspaper Al-Arabiya, remain in what is assumed to be Houthi custody. (Al-Sufi was taken away by armed men on April 6). Journalists working for outlets associated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah Party, the main opponent to the Houthis, were particularly targeted.

Beyond detention, journalists faced severe logistical difficulties in performing their work. With many of their offices ransacked and much of their equipment confiscated, journalists had to find new places to work. Internet and electricity – which have never been reliable in Yemen – effectively disappeared altogether as the country’s humanitarian and economic situation sharply deteriorated.

It was in this environment that Al-Yousifi, now a graduate from Sana’a University and active social media critic of the Houthis, confided to his friend Zaid Kudeish that he believed he was wanted for arrest, Kudeish told CPJ. But nonetheless on June 9 Al-Yousifi headed to a Sana’a hotel that offered electricity and Internet, along with eight other journalists and activists all in search of the same.

According to several colleagues and friends, the nine represented a broad spectrum, from established journalists like Abdulkhaleq Amran, the editor-in-chief of Islah Online news website, to journalists just getting their start, like Haitham al-Shihab, who had just begun writing for Al-Ahale news website, to activists like Hareth Humaid, who sharply criticized the Houthi movement on social media and participated in protests against them.

But all nine had two things in common. They all needed electricity and the Internet. And they all were likely in the crosshairs of the Houthi movement because of the news outlets for which they had worked, the critical public stances they had taken, or both. For at least three of them, it would not be the first time they were detained by the Houthis.

It is not clear whether the Houthis were tipped off to their presence or stumbled into them by accident. But according to the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate and news reports, the nine detainees were taken to the Al-Ahmer police station before being transferred to an unknown location. Several of their friends and colleagues said that they have not been heard from since.

Three separate Houthi officials and the Houthi-run Ministry of Human Rights did not respond to CPJ’s written requests for comment.

But the arrests themselves are comment enough for several journalists who said they no longer leave their houses in Sana’a or have fled the city entirely for fear of suffering a similar fate. Several have been forced to stop working as journalists altogether. Almost everyone interviewed for this article asked for anonymity for fear of retribution.

“The press is no longer free for those who express views opposing the Houthis, and those that do have to do so secretly or be on the move,” one journalist and friend of several detainees told CPJ. Another journalist lamented, “There is not a single independent media outlet that can work freely now under the authority of the Houthis.”

The big fear among many of the friends and colleagues is that the nine detainees could suffer the same fate as Abdullah Qabil, a reporter for the satellite TV news networks Belqees TV and Yemen Youth TV, and Youssef al-Ayzari, a reporter for Suhail TV. On May 20, pro-Houthi gunmen detained the two journalists, according to their employers and news reports. The next day, an air-strike by the Saudi-led military coalition leveled the building where the journalists were being held, killing them both.

Their deaths are a reminder that as censorial as the Houthis have proven, they are still not the only force in Yemen threatening journalists and journalism. Only a month before, collateral damage from a Saudi coalition airstrike in the Faj Attan district of Sana’a killed journalist Mohamed Shamsan and three staff members of the pro-Saleh Yemen Today TV station, according to news reports and the station. While there is no evidence that the Saudi-led coalition purposefully targeted journalists with airstrikes, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri said in a press conference on March 30 that media outlets supporting the Houthi movement would be targeted. The Saudi embassy in Washington D.C. has not responded to CPJ’s requests to clarify the general’s comments.

Meanwhile, at least three journalists have died in the past nine months as the result of kidnappings, bombings, and targeted assassinations carried out by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni press is under threat from all directions, and journalists are unable to report or even defend their own colleagues without fear of retaliation. But for many journalists from Sana’a, it is the Houthis and their allies that pose the most immediate threat. As one journalist who has received threats of imprisonment and death said, the Houthis “are taking people from their houses. They are acting like gangs. They are violating basic human rights, but I cannot tell these stories.”

“The Houthis are terrifying us,” said another journalist and friend of some of the detainees. The journalist, who was forced to find a job outside of the media after his outlet was raided by the Houthis, urged the international community to speak out on behalf of Yemeni journalists: “Our mouths are gagged, so yours are the alternative.”

Additional research was contributed by CPJ’s Beirut correspondent, Nadia Massih (@NadiaMassih).