When the so called Arab Spring started, an atmosphere of revolution swept across the region. Its roots can be found in Tunisia. Things, many thought, were predicted to change. The protests against corruption, oppression were inspiring and the certain restrictions it was thought, would come to an end.
It was falsely expected, however, that reform will come simply because the crowds were claiming more rights and freedoms in certain sectors. One of those sectors was the press. Yemen’s media was largely expected to enjoy larger chunk of freedom, but that’s absolutely not the case with the independent press in a country I used to call home.
Expectations of a new era for press freedom squashed
Press freedom is declining at a rate like never before in the midst of Yemen’s uprising, now in its seventh month.
Anti-regime protests have been taking place in Yemen since January, calling for democracy and change. During those protests, hundreds were killed and journalists were directly targeted. Earlier this month, Reporters without Borders said two reporters were killed by security forces while covering protests. At least eight foreign journalists have been deported, six reporters have been kidnapped and around 50 Yemenis in media have been physically attacked. The Republican Guard has seized tens of thousands of copies of Yemeni daily and weekly newspapers and access to news websites is frequently blocked.
Independent news outlets attacked
Al-Masdar Online is one of those sites; it has been blocked five times. Access to Mareb Press has also been blocked several times over. The satellite TV station Al-Jazeera was forced to close its Sana’a bureau on March 25th and all of its journalists had their accreditation withdrawn. Having spoken with my own friends and colleagues working in Yemen’s media, I can confirm that that these are just a fraction of examples of violation.
“I strongly believe that the excessive violation against independent press and journalists in Yemen since the revolution started back in January is very natural,” said Yasser al-Arami, managing editor of the al-Masdar Online news website. In contrast to the shock and outrage from many western observers, al-Arami, who has been in Yemen for years, had come to expect these constraints on media freedom.
“What we have been witnessing and experiencing of hardships is a very typical act coming from this oppressive regime that adopts methods to silence and suppress independent free press. Yemen’s regime has a long history of violations against an independent press and what’s taking place right now is just another act.”
Al-Masdar Online, a local independent news website, is one of the country’s most popular sites. It has been actively covering the protests in Sana’a, Aden and other governorates and has been the target of many cyber-attacks in the past. Last month, the block became physical. The republican security forces confiscated 3,000 copies of the site’s publication, a weekly newspaper. Forces stopped the newspaper's distribution officer while he was on his rounds. They seized the copies and when he tried to resist, they threatened him with imprisonment.
“Currently, the regime is confiscating newspapers, stopping distributions and it’s even blocking websites from people inside the country to read, because it wants to mislead people and block the true voice from reaching them,” said Al-Arami. “The regime makes sure that the only channels allowed to get information out are their own, the governmental media outlets. The regime doesn’t want the truth to reach people through the independent press; it just wants to portray the fabricated truth through its own sources.”
‘Pistols were put in front of journalists' faces’
In a slightly more alarming example, an armed group stormed al-Mareb Press’ office on June 20th and threatened its employees before confiscating all of their press and identity cards. The independent news website has also been actively reporting about Yemen's uprising and publishing articles by dissident writers.
“They accused the office of causing ‘disturbance’ to next door apartments in the same building and causing a so-called ‘lack of discipline in the whole building’ said an al-Mareb spokesman. "Pistols were put in front of journalists' faces, threatening them to give away their press and identity cards.”
Dissatisfaction directed at the authorities’ draconian response to press freedom has fallen on deaf ears.
Abdo al-Jundi, our Deputy Information Minister, denied allegations of hindering free media, saying there is “no one in Yemen from any governmental institution has the right to violate newspapers and press.” The ministry, he added, “condemns those acts. In addition, we had never received any official letter from newspaper that has been violated to investigate on the acts against them.”
In contrast, Saeed Thabet, Senior Undersecretary of the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate, said he “condemns all what the security forces are doing against private and independent journalists and newspapers based on their stance against the regime.” Valuing safety and protecting those in Yemen should be high on their agenda, instead of illegally terrorising journalists and newspapers.
Yemen’s press must survive
Unfortunately, this tight grip on Yemen’s media is nothing new. Just last year, Reporters without Borders ranked Yemen at 170 in its press freedom index. There were 178 countries in total. These recent events and the media’s attempt to cover them has simply put us under a huge spotlight, and revealed the system's defects. As foreign journalists poured into the country to document Yemen’s historical uprising, hopes among our international visitors and local reporters for increased freedom of the press grew.
“Silencing the press is one of the regime’s attempts to damage the revolution,” said al-Masdar’s al-Arami. “It’s working on misleading public opinion by not allowing the truth to come out.”
At present, Yemen’s political, social, economical and humanitarian situation is at stake. Yemen’s press must survive to report on how critical the situation is. If the press doesn’t, who will?
Afrah Nasser is a 26 year old Yemeni journalist and blogger who has fled the country. She is now based in Sweden where she has applied for asylum, having received death threats following her critical reports.