officials representing some 20 Western and Arab governments and international
financial institutions declared themselves “friends of Yemen” during last week’s closed-door meeting in
London to address threats posed by Al-Qaeda in Yemen, according
to news reports. Participants,
including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, offered assurances that
the international community, in addition to providing military cooperation, would
work with the Yemeni government to promote human rights and build democratic
institutions. But skeptics fear this publicized “friendship” will also provide an
opportunity for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to intensify his attacks on
political dissent and independent journalism.
Saleh, who has
earned a reputation as a master of political survival since coming to power in
1978, has used government offensives against the Shiite armed rebellion in
northern Saada province and against peaceful unrest in the country’s south as
cover to attack his critics. The abduction
in September of journalist Muhammad al-Maqaleh and the ongoing detention of
thousands of political prisoners give Yemeni journalists plenty of reason to
fear for their safety under a regime seemingly determined to silence criticism.
Committee to Protect Freedom of Opinion and Expression (CPFEO) issued an
alarming report in January documenting the detention of seven journalists,
including Hisham Bashraheel, editor of the independent daily Al-Ayyam. Bashraheel’s
occurred on January 6 at his office in Aden.
Two of Bashraheel’s sons also remain under arrest, according to CPFEO. The
organization said it documented more than 140 press freedom violations in 2009,
including death threats, assaults, smear campaigns against critical
journalists, prosecutions in the new Press and Publications Court, and an Orwellian government
decision to simultaneously ban
“My colleagues and
I firmly believe that cracking down on the media and peaceful demonstrations
serves the interests of Al-Qaeda,” Sami Ghaleb, editor of the independent
weekly Al-Nida, told CPJ. Ghaleb appeared before the Press and Publications Court today,
along with three Al-Nida reporters and one contributor, on charges of publishing
“false news likely to harm the country’s unity” in relation to the paper’s coverage
of the southern unrest. Ghaleb said authorities were “fabricating charges to
silence genuinely independent newspapers” and spreading “the illusion that
peaceful demonstrators in the south are linked to Al-Qaeda.” Ghaleb said his hearing
was postponed to February 8.
another recent case points to Saleh’s determination to abuse Western backing to
intensify his war on freedom of expression. In January, journalist Anisa
Mohammed Ali Othman was sentenced in absentia to three
months in jail in connection with two 2007 commentaries examining alleged
government corruption. Her work was deemed defamatory to Saleh. “The West and
particularly the United
States are all eyes on terrorism, while 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.
He was taken to court for publishing Othman’s work. Amer told CPJ that
the Information Ministry had banned his newspaper for five weeks in 2009 for “harming
the country’s unity.”
Amer’s speech in accepting
CPJ’s 2006 award has not lost a bit of timeliness. “In the Arab world, where I
come from, rulers relinquish power only when there is a military coup or when
they die. They consider a free and independent press to be their top enemy."
Kamel Labidi is CPJ's Middle East representative.
Kamel Labidi is a freelance journalist and former CPJ representative and consultant for the Middle East and North Africa region. Labidi returned from exile to Tunisia in 2011 to head the National Commission to Reform Information and Communication. He resigned in 2012 to protest the lack of political will of the Islamist-led government to implement the commission’s recommendations.
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