Yemen’s media landscape is changing rapidly. With the revolution which led to the overthrowing of President Ali Abdullah Saleh came a wave of optimism and anticipation for freer and more diverse media, and increasing numbers of television channels and news website have been established since the departure of the Saleh regime.
However, this has not necessarily led to beneficial results, as media consumption becomes a matter of choice for readers and listeners between news providers with different ideologies and agendas.
Doha Centre for Media Freedom has spoken to a number of journalists and media experts in Yemen to get an idea of how people in the country get their news, and how Yemeni media are changing. Through doing so, it became clear that press freedom remains under threat in a country where journalists are pressurised and threatened by influences from all directions.
How do Yemenis consume their news?
The most popular method of consuming news in Yemen is television. A combination of factors such as the fact that much of the population lives in isolated rural areas and the high levels of illiteracy, means that most Yemenis still find out what is happening within and outside their country through the television.
“In general TV is still the most popular method of hearing the news for Yemenis, because TV is the only accessible method for most of the people in Yemen, especially to those who settled in rural and mountainous areas,” said local journalist and media analyst, Marwan Al-Munayfi, adding “on the other hand, television is also the first choice for people living in urban areas with low levels of income.”
The state controlled Yemeni Radio and TV Corporation remains a popular source of news for many Yemenis, while newspapers tend to be read by more educated members of the population in urban areas, where they are able to be distributed.
However, illiteracy remains a major problem for a country which is the poorest in the Arab world. According to the UN Development Programme, in 2011 45% of Yemenis lived in poverty. This plays a role in the development of the media landscape, placing more emphasis on radio and television for consumers unable to read newspapers or online media.
“I think the high rates of illiteracy undoubtedly affected the strength of the press in society – you cannot find a strong press in an illiterate society and you cannot expect the media to play an active role in encouraging social change,” said Al-Munayfi, adding “that is why media remained in the hands of the government for many years, using it to rule the people.”
Despite these issues, the biggest development in Yemeni media in recent years has been the surge in popularity of social networking sites and other internet services, with many more Yemenis opting to find their news online.
“Internet has become one of the main sources of news among residents of the major cities in Yemen, and specifically during and after the revolutions of the Arab Spring,” added Al-Munayfi.
Press freedom in pre-revolution Yemen
Prior to the demise of the Saleh regime, Yemeni media had been tightly controlled by the state. While there was a shortage of independent newspapers, the news that was published tended to be written depending on political agenda. Journalists who tried to buck this trend were often subjected to harassment and abuse, meaning that a culture of self-censorship took hold throughout journalists in Yemen.
Journalists who have tried to cover issues related to government corruption and embezzlement had regularly been targeted in the years preceding the revolution, and newspaper editors were arrested on an alarmingly regular basis. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlighted the ways in which press freedom was being severely restricted in 2010, and Yemen placed 171st out of 179 countries in the organisation's latest World Press Freedom Index.
While the country has seen major changes over the past year, this is one aspect of Yemeni society which has not witnessed any meaningful development. Journalists are still threatened by numerous elements within and outside the authorities, and press rights groups have consistently highlighted the difficulties faced by local and international journalists in Yemen. As recently as September 2012, RSF published a statement detailing a number of press freedom violations, expressing their serious concerns about media conditions in Yemen.
Despite the apparent improvement in conditions, the development of Yemeni media and issues related to press freedom, the quality of journalism and the independence of media outlets remain pressing issues for analysts and experts.
A battle for influence
Many journalists in Yemen have complained that security forces are behind much of the intimidation and harassment they face while trying to carry out their work. However, the growing influence of various factions, vying for influence and power has led to media workers being targeted by members of a number of different groups.
The emergence of satellite channels and online news sites has brought with it a raft of new difficulties and press freedom concerns for experts.
Editor of the English language newspaper, Yemen Post, Hakim Al-Masmari told Doha Centre for Media Freedom that “politically motivated, factioned control” is a major difficulty journalists in Yemen face on a daily basis.
“The government does not have too much control any more, the major worry now is other factions trying to spread false news to gain support,” he said, adding “groups are opening TV stations to spread their views as this is the easiest way to reach people.”
While certain channels are owned by elements of the deposed Saleh regime and express support for his government, different religious and political groups are now broadcasting news, features and documentaries focusing on issues that relate specifically to their interests. Unfortunately for the viewers and listeners, these broadcasts are rarely balanced or based on anything more than opinion and rumour.
This makes even choosing which news channel or source to watch a significant decision for Yemenis. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the different forces at work behind news providers, and in a vicious cycle of misinformation, are unaware to make any sort of informed decision about the veracity of the reports to which they are being subjected.
As long as these threats continue to exist and journalists feel that they are being pressurised to follow certain agendas, there is little chance of seeing press freedom develop meaningfully in Yemen.
As social media and online news continue to develop throughout the Arab world, Yemeni citizens have started to engage with this new form of news consumption in recent years.
Internet usage represents one of the most significant changes for the media in Yemen, and according to internetworldstats, the country had 3,691,000 internet users in June 2012, compared to 420,000 in 2010.
Al-Masmari has direct experience of how users are opting to consume the news online, having launched his weekly newspaper’s website. While circulation of his newspaper two years ago stood at around 12,000 a week, the website can now receive over 60,000 hits a day, representing a significant increase in readership.
“We can update the website hourly so people can get the news when it happens – with access to new resources, they do not want to wait until the weekly newspaper is published,” he said.
However, online media brings with it its own challenges, and Yemen, like everywhere else in the world, is currently wrestling with the problems associated with the blurring of lines between facts and reality, and opinion and rumour.
“People cannot differentiate between truth and rumour, while websites with no journalism experience or news background publish stories with no basis,” said Al-Masmari.
The effects of spreading rumours and false news go further than simply misinforming news consumers, they also provide authorities with the backing they need to justify curbing press freedom.
“The effects of irresponsible journalism are catastrophic,” argued Al-Masmari, adding “it provides the authorities with the justification they need to restrict the press.”
The future for Yemeni media
Al-Masmari is currently working on a draft “audio-visual law” which will address the issue of licensing news outlets.
However any legislation must walk the fine line between promoting responsible, quality journalism, and restricting press freedom.
This is something of which the editor is acutely aware: “We have been working with lawmakers and international legal experts to get this right. It needs to ensure that people practice responsible journalism, but it cannot restrict press freedom.”
Undoubtedly the media in Yemen is changing, and there are many reasons for optimism. However, there are significant challenges which are already rearing their ugly heads, and need to be adressed.
As long as media is seen as a way to control a largely poor and uneducated population, opposing forces will continue to attempt to exert influence over the news, which can be significantly harmful to consumers.
Plans for a new law will hopefully address these issues and ensure that responsible journalism becomes the norm for the growing number of news providers.
Having emerged from the tight control of the Saleh regime hopeful for a freer and more diverse landscape, media in Yemen have reached a critical point.
As Al-Masmari puts it: “The problem is not the media, it is the credibility of the media – this is the biggest challenge for the future.”