Yemen: Attacks, Censorship, and Dirty Tricks

SANA’A, Yemen — Newspaper editor Jamal Amer arrived home just before dawn last August 23 after closing the latest edition of his independent weekly, Al-Wasat. A shout pierced the morning calm as Amer got out of his car, and, within moments, a man in a military jacket and traditional head scarf bundled the editor into a nearby Toyota pickup.

Three men inside blindfolded Amer, bound his hands with cloth, and pistol-whipped him. After switching cars, they took him to an isolated area high in the mountains surrounding Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, where for nearly six hours they beat him, accused him of being an “American agent,” and threatened to kill him. “They told me they would throw me off the mountain, and they fired their Kalashnikovs in the air to frighten me,” the 38-year-old Amer said in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists. Before dumping the bloodied and badly bruised editor in a remote suburb, they left Amer with these warnings: Don’t criticize high-level government officials or “symbols of the state.”

The assailants apparently didn’t notice that one of Amer’s colleagues was in the back seat of the editor’s car when the abduction began. The witness spotted the distinctive “11121/2.” license plate on the kidnappers’ vehicle. The tag’s numeric configuration, with the numeral 2 following a slash, indicated that it belonged to the Yemeni Republican Guard, a branch of the military controlled by Ahmed Saleh, son of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen’s Interior Ministry acknowledged to Amer that it was a military plate, but initially asserted that it belonged to a vehicle stolen during the country’s 1994 civil war. When Amer later discovered that the plate wasn’t issued until 2004, the ministry offered a different account: The tags belonged to a deceased military officer whose family sold them with the officer’s car.

For many Yemeni journalists, Amer’s abduction signified a dangerous escalation in the government’s crackdown on Yemen’s independent and opposition press–one that has grown bolder in exposing high-level corruption and tackling sensitive political issues. Over the last two years, at least two dozen outspoken Yemeni journalists have been victims of assault, imprisonment, or spurious criminal lawsuits, while others have faced intimidation by security agents and smears in the state-controlled press, a CPJ investigation has found. In the last year alone, at least seven newspapers have been shuttered by government or court order, CPJ found.

At the same time, Yemen’s Parliament is debating a new press law that sets out harsh restrictions on the media. Journalists fear the law could be used to silence critical voices in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for September.

Compounding problems for the press, several journalists have fallen victim to a wave of government reprisals related to the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have caused outrage across the Muslim world after they first appeared in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. At least four journalists have been detained and three newspapers closed for publishing some of the cartoons. The journalists face prison terms.

A CPJ  delegation, including board members Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune and Dave Marash of Al-Jazeera International, traveled to Sana’a in late January to assess the worsening press situation. Journalists, human rights lawyers, and civil society activists described a climate of intimidation and mounting restrictions on Yemeni journalists.

In six cases of violent attacks documented by CPJ in the last six months of 2005 alone, the Yemeni government failed to conduct serious investigations or bring perpetrators to justice, and its leaders conspicuously failed to denounce the assaults. Witnesses and evidence point to involvement by government forces and suspected state agents in a number of assaults. Targeted have been journalists who covered protests, reported on official corruption, criticized the president or government policies, or discussed the possibility of Saleh’s son becoming president.

Yemen’s press crackdown has international implications. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the Yemeni government has emerged as an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism in the strategically important Arabian peninsula. While U.S. military and economic aid is modest compared with that of other regional allies–projected U.S. assistance is $41 million for 2006–aid allocations have steadily increased since 9/11, as has counter-terrorism cooperation. Saleh has been a frequent visitor to Washington since 9/11, having met with U.S. President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials. Yemen also receives considerable economic and development assistance from the Netherlands, Germany, and multilateral donors such as the European Union and World Bank.

For his part, Saleh has banked on foreign aid to bolster his regime and has adopted the rhetoric of an aspiring democrat. “Democracy is the choice of the modern age for all peoples of the world and the rescue ship for political regimes, particularly in our third world,” he declared in speech delivered at a human rights conference in Sana’a last year. Saleh said that “human rights are tightly connected to democracy and the state of law and order … (and) we should remove anything that contradicts them and stand against all forms of discrimination, oppression, and exploitation for the human being and his rights.”

One of the world’s poorest and least developed nations, Yemen is also one of the least stable. Last year, it placed eighth on the Fund for Peace’s “Failed State Index,” which measures political and economic factors that threaten central authority, including a state’s ability to provide basic services, government corruption, economic development, and human rights. Yemen’s recent human rights record has been criticized by groups such as Amnesty International, which cited arrests without trial, torture, and press freedom violations. That has given international backers pause. The Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government aid agency, suspended Yemen from its program last November, citing the absence of democratic reforms and a lack of press freedom among many things. The program could have amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars in future aid over four years. The World Bank, too, recently cut aid to Yemen from $420 million to $280 million, citing fiscal irresponsibility.

How the Yemeni government responds to the challenge will be closely watched in the coming months. With presidential elections approaching, Saleh seeks to extend his nearly three decades in power by another six years. The press, one of the country’s most important centers of dissent and political debate, is bracing for the worst.

The unification of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990 was followed by a remarkable proliferation of private newspapers and a new vigor in public discourse. Yemen’s print media earned a reputation as one of the most boisterous in the Arab world; a range of independent and opposition party newspapers criticize government policies with varying degrees of objectivity and professionalism. Since 1994, when civil war broke out between north and south, authorities have exerted pressure sporadically on journalists through criminal prosecutions and other sanctions contained in the country’s 1990 Press and Publications Law.

But veteran reporter Khaled al-Hammadi traces a sharp deterioration in press freedom to the beginning of 2004–a perception shared by many journalists. Al-Hammadi, who reports for the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, was detained for 30 hours last September by Yemeni air force officials after he reported on the incidence of military plane crashes. He was released only after pledging not to write about the military without permission. Al-Hammadi said that it is no coincidence that attacks on the press have spiked during a period when Yemeni journalists have been increasingly bold in their writings, crossing unwritten “red lines.” “Perhaps the government is upset by the hard-line many writers have been taking,” he told CPJ. “During the last two years Yemenis have written very strong articles about the president, the president’s family–articles we have not seen before.”

In power for 28 years, Saleh is the second-longest tenured Arab leader behind Libyan leader Muammar Qaddaffi. Newspapers have questioned the wisdom of Saleh staying in power after his current term expires, and they challenged the grooming of the president’s son, Ahmed, as his successor. Some criticized Yemeni officials for supporting religious militant groups at the same time Saleh cast himself as an ally in Washington’s war on terrorism. Others criticized the president for harshly combating a regional insurgency led by tribal and religious figures in the northwestern Saada region, which began in 2004.

Coverage of the fighting in Saada, where rebel cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Hawthi had taken up arms against the state, struck a particular nerve with the government. The government hit back against the opposition weekly Al-Shoura, which had taken a harsh line against Saleh’s response to the insurgency. In September 2004, a Yemeni court sentenced Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani, Al-Shoura‘s editor, to one year in prison for incitement, “insulting” Saleh, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination. One of the opinion pieces that led to al-Khaiwani’s conviction called Saleh’s military action against al-Hawthi a “crime” and alleged that Saleh had obtained a “green light” from the United States before launching the attack. A second article condemned the government’s actions as “state terrorism” and warned that “terrorism begets terrorism.” A third criticized the army for the “ferocity” of its attack and authorities’ failure to resolve the problem through “dialogue.”

Jamal Jaabi, a human rights lawyer who frequently defends journalists, said al-Khaiwani was the first Yemeni journalist to be imprisoned for his work since the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990. Yemeni journalists and international press freedom groups such as CPJ waged an intensive campaign on behalf of al-Khaiwani, who was eventually pardoned by Saleh in early 2005.

More aggressive coverage about government nepotism and financial misappropriation has also made government officials anxious. “A big reason behind the [crackdown] is that journalists have been exposing corruption,” Jaabi told CPJ. “There was a marked increase in coverage of corruption beginning in 2004 to the present. The press started naming names.”

The emboldened coverage, Yemeni journalists say, reflects wider public anger about corruption at a time when public services are in decline, and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. “I think the economic situation forced journalists to write in a strong way,” said Ahmed al-Haj, an Associated Press correspondent. “The government is talking all the time about fighting corruption, but then it does nothing.”

Despite a high illiteracy rate and small newspaper circulation–the leading daily, the Aden-based Al-Ayyam, distributes around 40,000 copies daily in a country of 20 million people–newspapers are one of the few public avenues to scrutinize government action. “The newspapers are the only outlet [for people] to vent their frustrations,” according to Bashraheel Bashraheel, an editor at Al-Ayyam, whose newspaper’s office was visited in December by elite Republican Guards in an apparent attempt to intimidate the newspaper after it had published critical coverage of the government. “Television is controlled by the government and the political parties are weak.”

Throughout this, the Yemeni government has been under increasing domestic pressures with a debilitated economy, a restive rural population, and declining living standards. Public services such as health and education and infrastructure such as electricity are deteriorating, but the latest budget reportedly calls for defense spending to vastly outpace expenditures for those services. Unemployment is at 36 percent. In July 2005, a government move to cut fuel subsidies triggered violent protests that claimed dozens of lives in the worst civil strife since 1992. “Before 2002, press criticism didn’t touch the president,” said Amer, the abducted editor. “Now, the economic crisis is worse, the tribes are starting to revolt, and there is discontent on the street. [The regime] doesn’t need someone stirring up these issues.”

Amer’s abduction shocked Yemen’s independent press corps, many of whom took it as an explicit warning against the sort of enterprising journalism that had been a mark of Amer’s weekly, Al-Wasat. It was the only Yemeni newspaper to interview the rebel cleric al-Hawthi, and it regularly published reports by human rights and international organizations critical of the Yemeni government. Al-Wasat also published daring stories about government nepotism, including one that ran just days before Amer’s kidnapping. The story alleged that several government officials were exploiting state scholarships by nominating their own children to study abroad. “The nominations disregarded the academic performance of the students, a matter which forbids many top and underprivileged students in the country from their right in receiving these scholarships,” the article said.

Said Amer: “The scholarship story caused a big eruption. … All of these people were very close to the president.”

The attack on Amer attracted considerable attention in the press and triggered numerous condemnations in Yemen and abroad. Yet more than six months later, the assailants remain at large and government has provided no indication that it is seriously investigating. Amer said the police and Interior Ministry have ignored his repeated inquiries about the investigation. Most troubling has been the official silence. Not a single government official expressed public concern or condemned the brazen attack. Instead, government newspapers cast doubt on Amer’s account, blaming Yemeni opposition parties for carrying out the assault.

The handling of the Amer case is not unique. The government has yet to identify the perpetrators of a vicious assault on 27-year-old freelance journalist Nabil Subaie, who was stabbed in Sana’a on November 12. Subaie, who writes frequently for the Socialist Party weekly Al-Thawri, was walking home at around 8 p.m. when he was accosted by an assailant armed with a dagger and a second man who held a gun to his head and said: “Somebody is going to be killed tonight.” When Subaie resisted, an assailant stabbed him twice in the back and once in the hand. “This is the first time I’ve ever faced this kind of a problem in Sana’a,” Subaie said. The government soon announced that it had arrested a suspect, but it never provided details. “I have no idea if the assailants were arrested,” Subaie said.

The failure of Yemeni authorities to shed light on the case has led journalists to draw their own conclusions. Subaie had written provocative columns about religion, politics, and society, and he was among the first Yemeni journalists to criticize the prospect of Saleh handing down the presidency to his son. In 2005, Subaie wrote that Yemen was aiding terrorism through its support of militant groups, a story that led the government to suspend Al-Thawri in July 2005.

Between July and December 2005, at least four other journalists were the targets of assaults. Like the cases of Amer and Subaie, the perpetrators remain at large, the authorities have given little indication that a serious investigation is under way, and the government has not condemned the attacks. Here are details:

Haga’ al-Jehafi, editor of the weekly Al-Nahar, was wounded in July when a file folder delivered to his office exploded. Al-Jehafi said a prominent member of the Shura Council had threatened him prior to the attack because the paper criticized his use of power.

Mujeeb Suwailih, a cameraman for the pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya, and Najib al-Sharabi, a correspondent for the Saudi Arabia-based satellite channel Al-Ekhbariya, were attacked by security officers while covering a November strike by employees at a public textile factory in Sana’a. Suwailih suffered three broken ribs. Both were detained for several hours by the same officers who attacked them.

• And in December, Mohammad Sadiq al-Odaini, head of the Center for Training and Protecting Journalist Freedom, an independent Yemeni press freedom group, was threatened at gunpoint by a man he recognized as a security agent. A few days later, he said, he was attacked by the same man and two other assailants. Al-Odaini said he believed he was targeted because his organization’s annual report accused authorities of failing to investigate attacks on the press.

Other crimes have been reported as well. On August 26, the offices of The Associated Press and the independent weekly Al-Nida, which shared a building, were burglarized. AP correspondent al-Haj said burglars rifled through files and made off with two computers, a fax machine, video camera, computer discs with data, and videotapes with footage. Unused tapes were left behind. Equipment was also stolen at Al-Nida, a newly formed independent weekly that has been critical of the government. Al-Haj said he complained about the authorities’ failure to investigate the incident; after the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate issued a statement protesting the lack of progress, al-Haj said, he was summoned for questioning by the Interior Ministry.

The spate of violent attacks has occurred against the backdrop of mounting legal restrictions. In 2005, the administration submitted a new press bill that is now before Parliament. Government officials have touted the law as a step forward for press freedom because it removes provisions from the existing 1990 law that stipulate jail terms for purported press offenses. But Yemeni lawyers point out that the change is irrelevant because journalists still face jail time under provisions of the country’s penal code.

Many of the press bill’s provisions do little to improve the current law. The draft, for example, continues to prohibit offending the president or harming state interests, and it still directs journalists to “respect the objectives and aims of the Yemeni revolution.” Newspapers can be suspended for violating the law and journalists barred from practicing their profession, as under the current law.

But the draft prescribes stiffer professional requirements to practice journalism, including membership in the country’s Journalists Syndicate, and it stipulates that non-journalists cannot work in the press. It also demands expensive capital requirements for launching publications.

Potential fines have drawn particular concern. The draft before Parliament has yet to specify amounts, and journalists fear that exorbitant fines will be inserted by lawmakers or left to the discretion of judges under sway of the executive branch. Journalists believe the bill’s broad provisions will enable the government to silence critical voices.

Prime Minister Abdelqader Bajammal has defended the proposed measure, telling CPJ that Yemeni journalists “are working outside the law. They get into the bedrooms.” Bajammal said professional requirements for journalists and capital requirements for newspapers are necessary for “national security.”

Yemeni journalists are already under pressure from the existing law. Jaabi said that prosecutions of journalists number about 20, an increase of more than 60 percent since 2004. With Saleh the head of the judiciary, the court system lacks independence and leaves journalists at the mercy of politicized trials. As of late 2005, at least four newspapers–Al-Tajammu, Al-Shoura, Rasid, and Ousbou–were suspended by the courts or by government action because of controversial articles.

In the case of the opposition weekly Al-Tajammu, a court in Sana’a suspended the publication for six months and barred Editor-in-Chief Abdulrahman Abdullah Ibrahim and reporter Adulraman Saeed from working professionally for one year. The court said a September 2004 commentary about political violence in 1968 insulted Islam, incited ethnic conflict, and threatened national security. The commentary explored the sectarian ramifications of the 70-day siege of Sana’a by royalist forces. Sunni-Shiite sectarianism is a sensitive issue in Yemen.

On November 19, a lower court fined the opposition weekly Al-Thawri one million Yemeni riyals (US$5,500) for defaming two government officials in a story that said government jobs were being “sold.” The court also ordered the paper to print an apology in three successive issues. The newspaper faces 13 other defamation charges for criticizing authorities, and it faces closure if convicted on any one of them. One columnist, Mohamed al-Maqaleh, faces up to a year in prison and a ban on practicing his profession stemming from a commentary calling on Saleh to give up some of his extensive powers.

Dirty tricks have been reported as well. Security agents are believed to be responsible for several incidents, including a January case in which a recording of a private telephone conversation between Al-Jazeera correspondent Ahmed Shalafi and his wife was distributed to senior Al-Jazeera staff in Doha and to journalists in Yemen. Shalafi was said to have discussed potentially embarrassing personal background. Journalists interpreted the recording as an attempt to get Shalafi fired; they suspected Shalafi angered authorities by interviewing the kidnappers of Italian tourists and by reporting on corruption and human rights.

Yemeni security services are also believed to be responsible for commandeering or “cloning” outspoken Yemeni newspapers–establishing similarly titled and similar-looking newspapers to undercut the originals and confuse readers. Before its closure last year, the office of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura was taken over by armed men believed to be allied with the government and a new management team set up. Despite appearances, the new title carried a much different, pro-government editorial line.

Jaabi, the human rights lawyer, said Al-Thawri was cloned several years ago. The pro-government facsimile was printed under the same name, with only the color of the lettering in its nameplate different. At the end of 2004, Al-Shoura was cloned when a pro-government newspaper calling itself Manbar Al-Shoura was established, bearing the same logo with the word “Manbar” in tiny type. Authorities also cloned a women’s press freedom group, Women Journalists Without Borders, and forced the original group to change its name.

“Cloning” is done through government channels, and, in the case of newspapers, the Information Ministry must approve each new title. Yet the approval of some titles appears to be in violation of Article 34 of the press law, which states: “A newspaper or magazine shall not bear the same or a closely similar name to that of an already existing newspaper or magazine.”

Yemeni officials who met with CPJ in January pledged to investigate attacks on the press, but they avoided explicitly denouncing the assaults on journalists. During a contentious meeting with the CPJ delegation, Prime Minister Bajammal said attacks against any Yemeni citizen are unacceptable, but he suggested that the assaults on journalists were unrelated to their work and had been staged to gain attention. “Some people are creating problems against themselves,” Bajammal said. “They want to appear as fighters for press freedom. A journalist is drunk and then he clashes with people.”

Despite dismissing the attacks, Bajammal promised that the government would investigate and make its results public. “I promise you that there is no action against anyone because he is a journalist,” he said. “I promise to make a transparent investigation and make it open to everyone.”

The coming weeks will reveal the government’s sincerity in getting to the bottom of these crimes, but the absence of a forceful government stand has fostered a climate of fear and intimidation for the press. “The regime is not behind every attack on a journalist,” said Tawwokol Karman, a Yemeni reporter who heads a local women’s press freedom group. “But because it doesn’t follow up, people think they can attack journalists.”

Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He led CPJ’s mission to Yemen in January 2006. Ivan Karakashian, CPJ research associate, provided research for this report.


The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the government of Yemen to immediately adopt the following recommendations:

Encourage Yemeni journalists to carry out independent reporting, including that which is critical of the government, with an explicit guarantee that authorities will not penalize them, directly or indirectly, for such professional activities.

•  Publicly condemn violent attacks, acts of intimidation, and other crimes carried out against members of the press; ensure that thorough and transparent investigations are conducted into these attacks; and make public the findings of these investigations.

•  Cease government interference with the press, including newspaper suspensions, professional bans on journalists, and harassment from security agents. Ensure that banned journalists and newspapers are allowed to resume their work immediately.

•  Abolish provisions of Yemeni law, such as the current and draft press laws and the penal code, that violate the internationally protected right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Yemen is a state party.

•  Permit and encourage the creation of independent Yemeni broadcast media that will provide independent news and opinion, including views that are critical of the government and state policies.