Press freedom in the shifting Yemeni media landscape

In the wake of the 2011 revolution, the media in Yemen have witnessed significant changes. However, questions over press freedom and the future of the media remain

The Odyssey of foreign journalists in Yemen

With increased attention during and following the political uprisings, foreign journalists have faced numerous challenges in reporting the news from Yemen.

Press Freedom in Yemen: Through the Looking Glass

Nadia Al Sakkaf describes the media in Yemen's transition to a post-revolution era as something akin to Alice in Wonderland, as journalists are faced with a new and unexplored landscape

Kidnapped, threatened and beaten, but still committed to speaking the truth

Tawfil Al-Himyaree, manager of the ruling party’s newspaper, Addimukratee witnessed the revolution in Yemen, and here he tells DCMF about how he was kidnapped, arrested and targeted in overnight-raids

Is there a place for female journalists in Yemen?

An increasing number of Yemeni women are defying social norms by taking up jobs in local newsrooms.


Press freedom in the shifting Yemeni media landscape

The Odyssey of foreign journalists in Yemen

Press Freedom in Yemen: Through the Looking Glass

Kidnapped, threatened and beaten, but still committed to speaking the truth

Is there a place for female journalists in Yemen?

Before the Arab Spring, the few media outlets that talked about Yemen used negative terms related to the presence of extremist militants on the ground. The uprising which started in January 2011 generated new interest on the country, and attracted more attention from international media.

Very few foreign journalists were already in Yemen when the first demonstrations began, and few managed to enter the country to cover the events. The work of these correspondents became an odyssey full of challenges and surprises.

To enter, stay and leave the country

Theoretically, anyone wishing to come and work in Yemen must hold a journalist's visa or register as a correspondent with the Ministry of Information. These procedures were blocked by the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh for a long time, and journalists held either tourist, business or student visas. "There is no other choice if you want to stay in Yemen for more than three months..."explained Iona Craig, a freelance journalist working in Yemen since 2010.

This is a double-edged situation. In March 2011, the authorities carried out the expulsion of two British and two American journalists using the pretext of their illegal entry into the country. They were holding student visas, and the authorities simply decided that their work as correspondents for international media outlets was not allowed.

Oliver Holmes, the then Time correspondent in Yemen who has since moved to Beirut, said on his blog that he was accredited by the Ministry of Information and "regularly invited to official events." This episode shows the hypocrisy of the system – despite the government's knowledge of their presence in the territory, a perfectly legal excuse is used to expel journalists when it is necessary.

Conversely, other correspondents possessing neither a visa nor a journalist accreditation, continue to write without any difficulty. "I've never been bothered by the authorities, although I worked illegally for more than three years on a simple work visa," says Sarah,* a European journalist who has been based in Yemen for several years.

In addition, corruption usually makes the cost of each procedure extremely high for young freelance journalists. "The last time I needed an exit visa (a mandatory step for a foreign resident in Yemen) I did not have all the necessary papers, and if Kafka had wanted to write the sequel to his famous book, the story would have taken place in Yemen, in the immigration offices," says Nadia *, another European journalist living in Sana'a.

The role of the security forces

A British cameraman has best summed up the relationship between journalists and Yemeni security forces: "In a dangerous situation, I would tend to flee rather than run towards them. [Their] behaviour here is completely unpredictable, especially when television cameras are rolling.”

When the revolution was ongoing, or when clashes have occurred between different factions of the army, many of my colleagues were threatened, arrested or extorted money in exchange for their freedom. Journalist Jeb Boone recalls how security forces arrested him at a demonstration, confiscated his camera and drove to an ATM, forcing him to pay $100 to avoid prison.

These violations create a feeling of fear and apprehension whenever we are on the ground. "When I go to or from an event, I always look over my shoulder to make sure there is not a soldier," Nadia says. "They yelled at me, pushed me inside their car, hit me, slammed my camera, tried to steal it. They also blocked the way to prevent me from seeing what was really happening.”

This type of attitude is also pushing correspondents to self-censorship. Many of them choose not to write about some subjects or not to visit certain areas of Yemen as they fear being deported. I myself have several times used a pseudonym to sign articles that I felt were about sensitive issues.

A complex environment

One of the main obstacles to the proper coverage of events in Yemen is the virtual absence of independent sources. Most Yemeni media follow a political party, a specific group or a personality, and have an agenda. The few independent journalists are often targeted and we hear little about them.

Extreme restrictions regarding accessing most parts of the country also prevent journalists from going there to try to verify information they receive by themselves. Every foreigner who wishes to leave the capital must obtain a permit, and it is often difficult to obtain one to travel to some areas.

Other techniques are used as well. "I have traveled several times wearing a niqab to avoid getting spotted by security, after failing to get permission from the authorities," says Iona Craig. "You must be smart. Unfortunately, I know journalists who paid Al-Qaeda to gain access to certain areas," says Nadia.

Security conditions in the country, although deliberately exaggerated by some media, are nevertheless difficult. The presence of extremist militants in southern Yemen, American and Yemeni bombs targeting them, and occasional kidnappings represent many challenges to providing adequate coverage of the situation.

There is no transparency in Yemen, no way to access statistics, which complicates our work. Rumours, especially with the use of social networks, spread rapidly, supported by some, denied by others, leaving us unable to ascertain the information.

Despite this, regime officials remain accessible to journalists who have more credibility than others because they work for international media. A young correspondent, not affiliated permanently to a specific organisation, could easily get interviews with prominent political figures for example.

Finally, the complexity of the Yemeni politics is a daily challenge for foreign journalists who must study in depth the history of the country to understand and interpret events.

Towards a better future?

Obviously, violations of the international press are nothing compared to those faced by Yemeni journalists who are victims of arbitrary arrests, beatings, imprisonment, and even torture.

However, since the establishment of a national unity government in November 2011, the Minister of Information has been replaced and issuing official press cards seems to be easier now. Journalist visas still remain limited nevertheless.

The unwavering support of the population to foreign journalists is also a source of hope for improvement. "The Yemenis have been an incredible support," says Nadia. "When the soldiers were targeting us, they came to assist us and helped journalists to hide to avoid gas and bullets." Oliver Holmes has confirmed this comment: "Fortunately for us, the kindness of the Yemeni people eclipses the violent oppression imported from other dictatorships.”

Finally, emphasis should be placed on the training of journalists in Yemen, working on the need for objectivity, checking facts and sources. Supporting independent media in the country is a long term investment that could help to improve the whole system and also facilitate our work as correspondents in Yemen.

 

*Names have been changed at the request of journalists who preferred to remain anonymous.

 

In Yemen, the revolution was not a quick fix but a protracted process riddled with challenges and hurdles. It saw journalists facing tough tests to convey the truth and report on events. 

The experience of ruling newspaper Addimukratee's manager, provides an insight into some of the hazards that brave Yemeni journalists faced in trying to communicate the truth of what was going on in the country back then.

Kidnapping

It was the evening of March 11, 2012 and the "Change Square" was teeming with crowds of young protesters. I went to the podium and delivered a speech in which I warned the youth against the implications of the release of 82 Al Qaida prisoners by the intelligence. I highlighted that the regime talked to them before their release and it was very likely a deal was reached between them to storm the square.

On my way back home, a suspicious car hit me from the back, throwing me on the ground. I started shouting as loud as I could but in no time I found myself surrounded by four people. I first thought they came to help me but one of them pointed a gun at me and said threateningly: “Don't try to resist, there are three more silencers pointed at you."

They put me in the car, handcuffed and blindfolded me. I asked them who they were and what they wanted from me, but before I finished my questions, I received a punch in my face and an order to shut up or they would "break my mouth."

They drove for three minutes during which I was carefully focusing on the turns the car took and the distance covered thanks to my knowledge of the road on which they picked me up. When the car pulled over, I realised that we were in a place near Change Square. I was able to hear the chants of the youth emanating from there.

For a while I thought we were in a police station but I found out later that it was a house. They confiscated my mobile phone, ID and other personal belongings right after we reached the house.

Then they started questioning me about where I got the information that I said in my speech. I told them that I was just drawing conclusions from my reading of the regime's tactics… The interrogation went on until late in the night during which I was subjected to various kinds of torture ranging from beating to kicking and verbal abuse.

One of the interrogators used to shout in my face threatening: "There are still few seconds before we wipe the Change Square and the people inside it from the map."

They carried their threats through. On the dawn of Saturday 12 March, they stormed the square. From where I was locked in a narrow corridor, I heard what was going on and it triggered mixed feelings in me. I cried when I heard the sound of an ambulance car carrying a wounded or a dead young protester. However, I cried with joy when I heard the crowds chanting the glorious slogan "People want to change the regime." It told me that the youth had stood their ground.

My ordeal lasted for a week during which I had to drink from the bathroom tap and eat the scraps which they used to hand me.

On the Friday of "Dignity" a week after my capture, security forces clashed with the protesters, leading to the youth storming the building in which I was detained and setting me free along with others.

Assaults and Destruction of Media Equipment

As the world marked the World Press Freedom Day on the 3rd of May 2012, a twenty-member armed group stormed the headquarters of my newspaper, looting our equipment which included devices, documents and mobile phones. The assault which began at midnight was conducted by senior and very influential officers from the army and security forces who were never held to account for what they did.

Twins Born Out of the Womb of Suffering

On 23rd of June 212, I left my office and hit the road back home. It was late in the night when I saw four armed men get off a Hilux car and started beating me, breaking my nose and shoulder. The masked men kept saying to me: "You, non-believer... you insult the clerics and mistreated them." They destroyed my laptop and left me lying unconscious on the ground.

After sometime, a police man took me to the hospital and left his gun with the accountant as a guarantee for treatment expenses. The beating came in the wake of news that we published about the army finding bodies of non-Yemeni Al Qaida fighters who were brought in the country by a leading cleric in Yemen.

The next day I awoke to see my brother by my bedside and asked him: "Has my wife heard the news of the accident?" He assured me: "Don't worry; she is around the corner in the obstetrics section. She has given birth to two twin boys."

Back In the Custody of the Intelligence

Families of prisoners held a rally on October 6, 2012 to protest the bad conditions in which they lived. I was there in front of the intelligence headquarters when the security forces arrested and beat me, twisting my right hand. They blindfolded me and took me to prison where I was interrogated for hours and subjected to verbal abuse.

A member of the Democratic Party who participated in the protest told the media about my detention. Newspapers, websites and other media outlets published the news, contributing to my quick release from jail.

An interrogator threatened me saying that if I published news about the intelligence again, I would see my family standing in front of my jail for years calling for my release.

Media Conditions in Post-Revolution Era

The bad working conditions for media workers still persist without a major change after the revolution. Several journalists, myself included, are inclined to think that the revolution is still on and that the desired change has not been achieved. The same obstacles which used to hamper the work of journalists are still there. What has changed, though, is the improvement of access to information and people's increasing awareness of the role social media can play in reporting what takes place around them. Yet, lack of security presents a serious challenge to journalists who most of the time find their lives and jobs on the line due to a lack of protection from the security forces which curtail their freedom instead.

Another hardship weighing heavily on the life and work of journalists is low income, which is seen as a crippling material challenge affecting their ability to carry out their duty.

Taboos

Anyone following developments in Yemen certainly knows that there are issues which are off-limits to journalists, chief among which is the question of "terrorism and armed groups." Most journalists currently behind bars have tried to cover this thorny issue.

There is also rampant corruption which rocks the state and is encouraged by interest groups and senior officials.

Some media institutions impose self-censorship on journalists on certain issues that have to do with state agencies or influential figures. Sometimes, they refuse to publish news for fear of backlashes and reactions.

Added to this is the fact that some political parties and social groups object to media criticism of religious institutions.

Reporting on any of these issues could expose journalists to risks like kidnapping and long term imprisonment, especially in the absence of legal bodies or media unions with the strength to prevent these violations and defend journalists.

Against all odds, Yemeni journalists keep hunting and conveying the truth at all costs, regardless of the sacrifices they make.

 

Her ambition, confidence and passion set her apart from her male colleagues.  She is the only female editor in Yemen today and she runs the country’s first and most widely-read independent English-language newspaper, the Yemen Times.

Nadia Al-Sakkaf, 35, has been the editor-in-chief of Yemen Times since 2005, and over the past seven years, she has faced numerous challenges.

“In Yemen, there is a glass ceiling that is even lower than other societies,” said Al-Sakkaf in an interview with DCMF. “Yemeni society doesn’t accept woman as a boss easily and there are only two ways to become an editor for a woman in Yemen: she should either be the owner of the newspaper or a successful businesswoman.”

Organisations such as Media Women Forum and Women Without Chains are pushing hard for this role reversal.  Fakhira Hugaira, former executive director of Media Women Forum, explains that there is a cultural stigma attached to the concept of female journalists.

“Many families are not comfortable with their daughters working as journalists because they are not respected in society,” said Hugaira. “Also many media organisations prefer male journalists because they can travel alone, work long hours and socialise freely.”

But it is not just the social stigma that is stopping women from being successful journalists.

“Most women in media colleges do not get exposure to practical work. They are taught journalism in theory but they lack the experience of reporting outside the classroom,” said Hugaira.

Media Women Forum conducts workshops for college graduates where they work with professional journalists on different stories. “We teach them how to pitch story ideas and how to use social media to promote their stories,” Hugaira added.

An increasing number of women are opting for journalism studies in Yemen. However, many prefer working in the field of communications or public relations upon graduation.

“They choose jobs in the field of public relations because they work with companies rather than pursuing stories on the street,” Al-Sakkaf said, adding “in a conservative society like Yemen, women will opt for a job where there is less interaction with men.”

Apart from battling social taboos, women journalists in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, have to fight for ‘equal pay for equal work.’

“The pay for female journalists even if they write the same story is 40 percent less unless she is already established,” said Al-Sakkaf. “At entry level, many women accept jobs that are unpaid to build credibility hoping that she will get paid well later, but this is not the case with men.”

Despite all these restrictions, being a female journalist has its own perks in a country like Yemen.

“Sometimes it is easier for girls to get information or to get an appointment for a high profile interview because in our culture, people are reluctant to disappoint a girl,” Al-Sakkaf said.

“Even in a press conference, if a man and woman raise their hands at the same time, it’s more likely that they will pick the woman,” she added.

Iona Craig is a foreign correspondent for The Times and a freelance journalist. She moved to Yemen in 2010 and believes that as a woman she has far greater access to critical stories than male reporters.

“It is a bonus being a woman in Yemen because I have covered stories which a male journalist will never have access to,” said Craig.

She spent some time in a local newsroom working with female reporters. “I feel that sometimes editors can be quite patronising towards women but things are slowly changing in Yemen after the uprising.”

The uprising has surely changed the position of women in society and now more than ever, women are contributing to shape the future of Yemeni media. 

 

 

 

 

 

Nadia Al-Sakkaf is the editor in chief of The Yemen Times independent newspaper and radio. She is also a member of the preparatory committee for the National Dialogue Conference leading the way for Yemen's political transition.  Here she talks to DCMF about her thoughts on the future of media in Yemen, its importance to the political development in the country, and the work of women journalists.

 

For the first time ever there are private radio stations in Yemen. There is Yemen FM and Radio Yemen Times. There are also projects for other private radio stations that will be launched soon.

There are 11 Yemeni satellite channels. Yemen Satellite Channel, Yemania, Saba, Al-Eman, Al-Saida, Suhail, Azal, Al-Masira, Al-Aqiq, Yemen Shabab and Yemen Today.  Many of those have appeared in the last two years and only four of them are state run.

The number of Facebook subscribers from Yemen has doubled at least since 2010 reaching 462,160 in a country where internet penetration is less than 3 percent.

Moreover, since 2011 the number of new newspapers, news websites and blogs has increased tremendously. Many of these new media outlets are politically oriented as well as those in the private sector, which were not allowed to exist as recently as two years ago.

There is a sense of euphoria in the country when it comes to media. The red lines and censorship that used to limit free press are gone. Individuals and organisations that used to be oppressed or not allowed to either have their own media or free space to express their opinions are now enjoying the freedoms they never had before.

The catch is that with so much space, the impact of censorship of the past becomes very visible in the levels of professionalism and objectivity. The new space has given opportunity to unprofessional and yellow journalism that thrives on scandals and unreliable news. In fact, political parties and organisations with specific agendas are using the new space to personally attack rivals and defame opponents.

Press in Yemen post the revolution is something like Alice in Wonderland. New unexplored opportunities, lots of temptations, no traditional rules, new risks and unknown threats.

Professional journalism

The number one requirement and concern for Yemeni media today is professionalism. Most state media especially broadcast media was used to doing things in a traditional and limited way. The concept of investigative journalism does not exist and objectivity or research is a luxury.

Another reason why there is a problem in professionalism was the lack of competition in the past. Radio for example until a few months ago was controlled entirely by the state. Considering that at least half of the population is illiterate, radio is perhaps the single most important media tool that could be used to reach Yemenis all over the country. With the state control in the past, listeners did not have an option. They either listened to the only version of facts they have or not at all. State media did not see a reason to develop its programmes or improve their production. Today the story is changing.

Moreover, many donor-led projects are now seeking to help Yemen through its transition by supporting independent press. Whether this is through training programmes, or technical and sometimes financial support for the free independent press in Yemen.

Improving the capacity of independent free press in Yemen is not only going to help the media situation in general, but it will also help the political stability and transparency through citizen engagement and good governance promotion media productions.

Today’s opposition

Another interesting fact is Yemen’s unique situation. Yemen’s answer to its version of the Arab Spring was a peaceful one through a political agreement signed in Riyadh by the previous regime and its opposition.

The Gulf Council Countries Initiative was blessed both inside and outside Yemen. It helped Yemenis move from the conflict zone to the dialogue table, which is by all measures a remarkable achievement and makes Yemen a leading country in the region if not the world in terms of political reconciliation.

The initiative’s implementing mechanism stipulates a series of steps that must be taken during a transitional phase of two years starting from November 2011. Perhaps the most significant step is the National Dialogue Conference yet to start soon. The dialogue will last for six months and result in the creation of a framework for a new Yemen.

The National Dialogue Conference includes political players from all sides, not just the ones who signed the GCC initiative. In fact, it also includes representatives of women (30 percent), youth (20 percent) and civil society organisations (around 7 percent).

In theory, the inclusiveness is amazing and much needed. But one question remains: with everyone in power, what is today’s opposition going to be?

Opposition is much needed to keep the decision makers and leaders on track.

The answer to this is civil society and independent media. They are the watchdogs of any society and the stronger and more credible they are the more stable, transparent and effective any government will be.

They will represent their communities and the interest of the general public especially in such vital times where the future of nations is being decided.

This is why it is so important to empower civil society and enable them to be actively present in all walks of life. They need to fully embrace their responsibility of being outlets for the society and their concerns.

The time is now. Civil society organisations and independent media need all the support they can get whether in terms of technical support, logistical support of even financial assistance.

Gender and new media

“I feel a sense of freedom online that I never experienced as a journalist before. Online it does not matter whether I am a man or a woman, it matters what I write because I can conceal my gender and force the readers to judge me by what I write, not based on the fact that I am a woman...” This is one of many testimonies of female Yemeni journalists who are enjoying the opportunities provided by the World Wide Web.

Facebook statistics on Yemen show that a quarter of the subscribers are women. Moreover, there are many more Yemeni women who are starting their own blogs and Twitter accounts. They do this because it is free and because it protects their identity allowing them more freedom of expression.

Moreover, the visibility of Yemeni women in the 2011 uprising has proved to decision makers in the media that women can be part of politics, whether making the news or writing it.

Not only are women are becoming more visible in media, but new media is rapidly emerging.  Not only electronic media such as social networks and Youtube, but also mass communication tools such as sms, theatres, songs, art and poetry have increasingly been used to express and promote political and general views.

The expanding open spaces and new platforms are the reality of today’s press in Yemen, giving Yemeni media more both opportunities and risks than ever before.

 

 

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.

 

Online media

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.”

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