Torture. Denial of medical care. Repeated interrogations and accusations of collaborating with enemies: Yemeni journalist Youssef Ajlan’s story of his detention, which lasted over a year, hews closely to those of many journalists imprisoned for their work.
This month, CPJ published its annual prison census, which found that governments around the world are holding at least 262 journalists behind bars for their reporting.
But CPJ never listed Ajlan on the census, because he wasn’t jailed by an internationally recognized government and therefore wasn’t covered under our methodology. Rather, he was detained by the Ansar Allah movement, commonly known as the Houthis–technically, a non-state actor.
Yet the Houthis have detained dozens of journalists and are currently holding at least 13, according to CPJ research. If the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world, after Eritrea and ahead of Azerbaijan and Vietnam.
The effect on the climate for media, and the flow of information to the public, is the same, whether the entity enforcing such brute censorship is an internationally recognized government or not. The Houthis’ detentions of journalists has silenced those who wouldn’t toe the line, according to one freelance Yemeni journalist who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
“My colleagues and I think that there [is] no real reporting from inside the capital or anywhere Houthis are controlling,” the freelance journalist said.
CPJ has documented how all sides in Yemen’s conflict commit abuses against journalists, and how the disintegration of state structures and accountability have further amplified the threats. The freelance journalist told CPJ that in addition to being attacked by the Houthis, he received criticism online from the Houthis’ opponents — members of the government run by President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and based in Aden.
The Houthis have risen from a rebel group based in the mountainous north to controlling the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and effectively taking over what remained of the Yemeni national government. After consolidating their hold on Sanaa in September 2014, the group seized control of the main intelligence and security agencies, including the National Security Bureau and the Political Security Organization –which according to a report to the U.N. Security Council were competing yet feared instruments of state control under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Hadi’s predecessor, who was killed this month). Then they started detaining journalists.
On June 9, 2015, nine journalists were detained at the same time when Houthi fighters raided a Sanaa hotel where they had gathered because it offered electricity and internet access:
- Abdulkhaleq Amran, Islah Online
- Hesham Tarmoum, Mareb Press newspaper
- Hareth Hameed, Al-RabeaNet news website
- Akram al-Waleedi, Al-RabeaNet news website
- Essam Balghaith, Nass FM radio station
- Hisham al-Yousifi, Yemen Tube website
- Haitham al-Shihab, Al-Ahali newspaper
- Hassan Anaab, Yemen Shabab TV channel
- Tawfiq al-Mansouri, Al-Masdar newspaper
According to Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, an independent human rights NGO based in Sanaa, these nine are being held in a Sanaa prison run by the Political Security Organization and their cases were transferred to a criminal court on June 17, 2017.
Since then, the Houthis have detained four more journalists, including:
- Salah Al-Qaedy, of Suhail TV channel, on Aug 28, 2015, held in the Political Security Organization’s Sanaa prison
- Hussein Saeed Al-Easi, of Nahthat Watan newspaper, on Feb 18,2016, held in the Sanaa al-Thawra Temporary Prison
- Abdullah Al-Munifi, of Al-Sahwa net news website, on Feb 18,2016, held in the Sanaa al-Thawra Temporary Prison
- Abdel-Raheem Mohsin, who freelanced for a number of outlets such as news websites Al-Hadath and Yemen Voice, on August 24, 2017. CPJ was unable to determine where Mohsin is being held.
CPJ was not able to determine the status of those four cases under the Houthi-controlled institutions.
Ajlan, who had worked as a reporter for the newspaper and news website Al-Masdar from 2008 until 2015, was arrested October 16, 2016 and released November 23, 2017. He told CPJ that he was beaten and subject to ill-treatment, particularly during the first month of his detention; his Houthi captors questioned him repeatedly, punched and kicked him, and beat him with a stick all over his body. He said they later tied his arms and legs to an iron rod and suspended him from between two desks.
“They asked me about my work as a journalist and my contact with journalists outside the country,” Ajlan said. He said he had been detained by the Houthis for several hours on March 26, 2015, and had stopped working in media after this first detention.
Ajlan said he was held in six different locations, and suffered from stomach ailments and urinary tract infections but was denied access to medical care, forcing his family to bring him medication prescribed by doctors outside of prison. Houthi authorities often barred his family from visits, he said.
CPJ could not independently verify Ajlan’s account of his treatment in detention. CPJ emailed Mohammad Abdulsalam, spokesman for the Ansar Allah movement, with questions about the treatment of journalists in areas under the group’s control, but has not received a response.
“Even though I told them that I had stopped working as a journalist and had bought a taxi in order to support my family, they rejected everything I said and accused me of being an agent for Saudi and American aggression,” Ajlan said, referring to his second detention of over a year.
Aside from the arrests, there is the disappearance of journalist Waheed al-Sufi, the editor-in-chief of the Yemeni weekly al-Arabiya. Al-Sufi was abducted by unidentified gunmen in Sanaa on April 6, 2015, while paying the newspaper’s bills at the post office, and his whereabouts are unknown. There has been no verified claim of responsibility, and the Houthis have denied responsibility, but the kidnapping happened in Sanaa, where the Houthis exercise control.
Instead of investigating al-Sufi’s disappearance, the Houthis have continued to obstruct and detain journalists. For example, on December 2, they seized the TV channel Yemen Today’s office and held dozens of employees hostage until December 13. Many journalists have fled for areas under the control of the government in Aden. Under Houthi control, the environment is a combination of the hollow shell of Saleh’s authoritarian rule of law with the rebel rule of the gun. Silence or exile are the only options.