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Muzzling the Press in Yemen, Distorting the Story

Few foreign journalists remain in war zone

[Sana’a] — “Those journalists who are allowed to enter are monitored. If we suspect anyone, we arrest them and deport them, after torturing them a little bit,” an exclusive source inside the Yemeni National Security Bureau (NSB), remaining anonymous for fear of his safety, told The Media Line.

Impoverished, war-torn and bombarded day-and-night, this is Yemen — one of the most difficult places in the world to be a journalist. Local reporters trying to detail what is taking place in the country face constant harassment and a number have been killed, but for overseas journalists there is an added pressure.

“Currently, we are banning foreign journalists from entering Yemen, fearing that they might be linked to international intelligence agencies,” the source, said. This suspicion that foreigners are acting as ‘spies for the West’ has brought unwanted scrutiny to a number of journalists who travelled to the country in recent months.

“We know of at least a dozen cases of local journalists who are held against their will. Several foreign journalists were kidnapped and released, some were killed,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Program Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Media Line. Times are dangerous in Yemen for journalists who complain of directly- and indirectly- enforced censorship by the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis, Mansour said.

Of the nine journalists killed in Yemen since 1992, seven died since the start of this year, the director emphasized. One of those killed in 2014 was 33-year old American photojournalist Luke Somers, who was shot by his captors during a failed rescue operation by United States Special Forces.

The Houthis are able to keep a close watch over local and foreign journalists because they control the country’s electricity and Internet. Hotel rooms and lobbies, as well as local reporters, are monitored, making it easy to kidnap so-called “undesirables,” Mansour explained.

When threats and abduction are too blatant a tactic, other more subtle methods are used. A number of foreign journalists who spoke to The Media Line said their ability to work was frequently impaired by visa restrictions and Houthi control over interpreters. While some spoke on condition of anonymity, others refused to be quoted at all because they “wanted to return to Yemen in the future.”

“Jane” – pseudonym provided to protect her — is a female freelance journalist who has covered the conflict for several Arab and overseas publications. During her time in the region, Jane has travelled to Yemen on a number of occasions and told The Media Line that she witnessed harassment from each of the country’s warring factions.

On her most recent visit it was the NSB who interrogated Jane. “They wanted names, phone numbers, my camera and recorder, my computer. They asked about the stories I published,” the journalist said. Jane described the interrogation as lasting an hour and said, “This is by far the worst experience I’ve had in Yemen – simply because it was outright intimidation.”

The National Security Bureau is a law enforcement body mandated to protect the country from foreign threats. Like many of the country’s institutions it has been co-opted by the Houthis, who took power in September 2014. Despite having suffered territorial losses as a result of Saudi Arabian led airstrikes, the Houthis continue to control Sana’a, the country’s capital, and their home territory in the north of Yemen.

Journalists are not banned outright from entering the country by the Houthi, Jane reported, as they are happy to let foreigners report on anything that makes the Saudi coalition look bad, such as civilian casualties resulting from its airstrikes. The coalition of Sunni Gulf States has used its air power to back President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in his fight against the Houthis, and in the process mistakes have been made.

If a journalist was to stray away from the approved material, then the Houthis become less welcoming. “They did not force me to take certain pictures, but they wanted to know what I’m doing: when and how. They wanted all the details about my trip in Sana’a,” Jane said.

Saudi security on the border town of Bisha was not much better, “MG” reported. Each faction puts pressure on journalists to focus on its agenda and to ignore issues which are unflattering, the journalist explained. “In general, Yemen has became a place that is not welcoming to the foreign media. But this is in the nature of conflict zones,” she concluded.

For foreign journalists unable to speak Arabic, the problems only get worse. The Houthis have imposed interpreters on a number of journalists and banned them from using their own guides. Local journalists were threatened by the group not to act as fixers or interpreters to foreign media. In effect, the Houthis are taking control of the lens through which foreign journalists can see the country by imposing translators who back the group’s ideology.

“A leading Houthi media professional called me and threatened me with imprisonment because I kept asking his organization to allow me to accompany and translate for foreign reporters,” Al-Meqdad Al-Mejali, a local journalist, told The Media Line.

Despite having a permit for such work, Al-Mejali, who has freelanced for Newsweek and the Telegraph, was even banned from arranging schedules and interviews for foreign journalists visiting Yemen.
One Russian journalist reported that after entering the country her Yemeni friend who was acting as a translator was banned from accompanying her and was replaced by a Houthi-approved alternate. A second foreign reporter, from the United Kingdom, was denied a visa after having arranged his visit through a local journalist. No explanation was given, he reported.

And, of course, when such interference fails, there’s always violence to fall back on. The same source from within the National Security Bureau, who articulated the threat of torture to journalists, confirmed that Casey Coombs, an American journalist detained by the Houthis, had been severely beaten to the point of receiving fractures. The alleged reason Coombs was detained by the Houthis was for allegedly overstaying his visa. He was eventually handed over to United States representatives in Oman, arriving on a stretcher.

To complicate matters, the Houthis are not the only possible culprits as Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is believed to have taken a number of foreign nationals as prisoner.
Officials from the NSB and from Sana’a’s International Airport, where a number of overseas citizens were detained, refused to give any information regarding how many foreign nationals continue to be held.

“Journalists are more dangerous than those fighting for the (Saudi led) coalition and they should be pursued and arrested by the Popular Committees,” a leader of the Houthis previously declared.
Presumably, it is not just the Houthis who think this, as they themselves employ journalists. As Sherif Mansour from the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out, “The height of the conflict is making more journalists partisan, but then on the other side of the equation, the Saudi coalition is also responsible for killing some of the journalists and hase worked to mobilize supporters of former president Hadi.”

Felice Friedson contributed to this article.

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