Middle East

Yemen: An Attack on All

Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh at the presidential palace in Aden. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images)

Much discussion lately has been centered on what limits a responsible media should place on itself. At the other end of the spectrum remains the burning issue of censorship, propaganda and governmental limitations on the flow of information to the public. For some years the reformist posture of the Yemeni regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh had credibility internationally because of the existence of a lively Yemeni press. One reason confidence in Saleh's commitment to democratization has diminished is a prolonged and systematic assault on Yemeni journalists, as an informative press is the bedrock of a government run by the people.

International reaction to the governments proposed amendments to Yemen's Press and Publications Law has been unanimous in condemning the measure as a mechanism of heightened censorship and an infringement on the rights of the Yemeni public.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.) recently issued an alert outlining numerous and often violent attacks on Yemeni journalists. The C.P.J. noted that journalists have been stabbed, shot, bombed, arrested, kidnapped and threatened. Newspapers have been fined, closed and cloned — i.e., the government has established "similarly titled and similar-looking newspapers to undercut them and confuse readers." A transcript of a journalist's tapped telephone conversation with his wife was circulated via e-mail. According to C.P.J. research, "Witnesses and evidence point to involvement by government officials and suspected state agents in a number of brutal assaults." In 2005, the violations averaged about one a week. The C.P.J. notes that the judiciary is used as a means of retribution against journalists. The latest violation is the verdicts against the opposition newspaper Al Thoury and its editor Khalid Solman, The paper, the editor and several writers were found guilty of the crime of insulting the president.

One function of the media is to act as a watchdog on government, constructively reporting on its failures as well as successes. With increasing concentration of political power, military power, land ownership and business ownership in much of the same hands, there are very powerful forces working against transparency in Yemen. As illegal and unjust practices multiplied, so have attacks on Yemen's journalists. In the context of widespread corruption, hostile and powerful elite prefer to operate without public scrutiny.

The institutions that normally would provide a vehicle for the expression of the peoples' voice are disabled in Yemen, often becoming an extension of regime power. Those in civil society with independence are undermined in a variety of ways. The nongovernmental organization Female Journalists without Borders was recently cloned by a government-affiliated organization that began operating under the same name, forcing the authentic organization to rename itself Women Journalists without Constraints. Prominent civil leaders Hafez al-Bokari, head of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, and his wife, journalist Rahma Hujaira, were targeted by the official newspaper of the Yemen military, The 26 September, with false charges that they were connected to Denmark. In a letter to the Yemeni public prosecutor, the couple wrote, "Such fake information proves that this article is an attempt to use the anger spread in the Muslim world to attack us individually and to attack our institutions, Yemen Polling Center and Yemen Female Media Forum, for these institutions are concerned with democratic, social, and media reformation and development and they tackle general issues related to the society."

Some traditional social institutions have been distorted by corruption. Some sheiks place their loyalty with the ruling apparatus and work for its welfare as well as their own benefit, with the welfare of the people a distant concern. Sheila Carapico, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Richmond, recently said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor that Yemen has used a range of tactics to erode the independence of the tribes. "One of the techniques the government uses to extend its reach is to co-opt selected prominent sons of sheikhly families, who are almost always also military officers, into the regime," Carapico stated.

Many members of parliament are also from sheikhly families. Parliament is an institution designed to represent the will of the people and act on their behalf. The anthology Building Democracy in Yemen, observes about the ruling party, the General People's Congress, "The dominant G.P.C. has developed a policy of mixing tribal sheikhs with the political authorities. These traditional forces have come to dominate parliament through the G.P.C., which in turn, because of loopholes in the current electoral system, continues to strengthen ties and to move, from one election to the next, towards a one party system." The author concludes, "This reflects the dominance of a very small minority in society in terms of actual structure and authentic culture." This elitism undercuts the equal access and equal rights necessary for democracy.

The inherited political power of some families has distorted the representative nature of the parliament, which works against the health and welfare of the Yemeni people. The 2006 budget, which passed overwhelmingly, underfunded education, healthcare, electrical development and water projects, and increased military spending to 37 percent of the national expenditures. Further, in a clear conflict of interest, many of those with governmental or military positions also have ownership stakes in numerous large businesses and have become some of Yemen's largest landowners. As noted by Paul Dresch in The History of Modern Yemen, "The style of politics complained of by Southerners as a return to tribalism was complained of by others, within the North, as tribalism's negation." The reality he says is "day-to-day politics with networks of individuals who control both trade and real estate."

Elections are often a way to express the people's judgment and hold their representatives accountable. This institution is also dysfunctional in Yemen. The electoral commission is heavily biased toward the ruling party, leaving open the possibility of fraudulent voter registration rolls. Numerous instances of underage voting occurred in the last parliamentary election. Pre-printed ballots were distributed. Vote buying and voter intimidation occurred. The ruling party controls and exploits the broadcast media, denying equal opportunity to opponents in the marketplace of ideas.

In the absence of effective social or political institutions for the expression of grievances, some disenfranchised groups have resorted to other means. Motorcyclists have been denied their right to work in Yemen's capital city, Sanaa. After months of peaceful protest, they left the head of an ox outside parliament, hoping perhaps that tribal means might get the attention of their representatives. Somali refugees staged a protest outside U.N. headquarters that resulted in severe violence when security forces moved to disperse them. A march by students was also violently broken up. Residents took to the streets in Taiz to protest water shortages. (The absence of clean water adversely affects over 80 percent of the Yemeni population while large qat plantations owned by influential persons consume a great deal of water.) [Qat, one of Yemen's main cash crops, is a shrub whose leaves are chewed as a mild stimulant.] Teachers staged a nationwide sit-in to protest unfair and undemocratic practices. Textile workers staged a series of strikes to demand overdue salaries. In July, nationwide protests were sparked by the latest reform dose that was implemented without cuts in government spending or authentic anti-corruption measures. (The effects of the dose are continuing to cripple most Yemeni households while corruption and embezzlement continue in some ministries.) Recently, Yemeni women's groups protested to urge the government to enact a gun control law that has been pending for years.

Others have taken much more extreme measure to express their grievances. A 2004 parliamentary report documented individuals including children imprisoned by the government as hostages. Recently in an attempt to force the release of some of these government hostages, tribesmen kidnapped foreign tourists in separate incidents. (The regime normally does not respond with urgency to the kidnapping of Yeminis, thus the identity of the victims.) All incidents were resolved peacefully. In one case, the government agreed to provide money and four governmental jobs to each of the kidnappers. In response to a similar incident the next week, the government announced it would seek the death penalty for the kidnappers. A study of these kidnappings published in the official daily Al Thoura concluded, "Wronged and weak people sometimes have no way to express their views, gain their rights or publicize their cases." Advocates of freedom of the press often emphasize the public's right to know. As the study demonstrated, equally important is the public's right to be heard. The non-governmental print media is the only vehicle available to the Yemeni public to voice their grievances to each other, the government and the international community.

Public or independent ownership of broadcast media is illegal in Yemen, depriving the people of a national voice. The proposed amendment to the Press Law continues this exclusion. The government controlled broadcast media in Yemen provides little in the way of standard educational programming in this country battling illiteracy. It does not present a wide diversity of viewpoints or permit a frank exploration of issues. Rather the governmental media often works to hide the true scope of issues from the people themselves and the rest of the world. A week after the escape of 23 prisoners in Yemen, including many convicted members of Al Qaeda, the official English language news agency of the government, SABA, and that of the ruling party, Al Motamar, made no mention of the escape but covered subsequent events like the scheduling of conferences and congratulations issued to other governments.

While the governmental media engages in name-calling and scapegoating that can deepen divisions in society, the nongovernmental media can provide a political space for national reconciliation by exploring important issues in an honest and peaceful manner. Many in Aden have grievances about land confiscation, exclusion from employment and indiscriminate tactics by security forces that recently resulted in the death of a little girl. Despite the media blackout on the armed confrontations in Saada province between the military and a rebel group, stories have leaked out about the targeting of civilians and the looting of private property by security forces. Some tribal areas have been systematically denied the most basic human services like wells, hospitals, schools, roads and electricity. The nongovernmental media also reports very important but less complex issues like those of cotton farmers in Hudeidah province who complained about tainted insecticide that destroyed their entire crops. Social issues are also addressed like the lack of pre-natal and post-natal health care for Yemeni women that results in extremely high death rates for both mother and child.

Despite reformist rhetoric, much of the political power in Yemen is a function of identity not merit. Rather than empowering the public, the trend has been toward the succession of political and economic power within a few families. Any movement toward pluralism requires that the people retain what rights and advantages they have. Every group and each individual becomes weaker when journalists are unable to speak the truth. A journalist beaten or threatened is an attack on the rights of all citizens to be heard. Just as it is the responsibility of journalists to defend society, it is the responsibility of all of society to defend its journalists.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.