EXCLUSIVE TO THE MEDIA LINE: The Lost Freedom of Expression in Yemen
EXCLUSIVE TO THE MEDIA LINE…YEMEN’S INFORMATION MINISTER LAMENTS HIS NATION’S TRAGIC TURNABOUT ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
It took tremendous efforts and around three decades to improve the situation of independent press and freedom of expression since the creation of the Republic of Yemen in 1990. The first decade of this millennium was especially constructive in this regard as the various media institutions and rights’ based civil societies became stronger and more experienced. As a country, Yemen was able to reserve its place in the region as one that displayed significant strides towards having free media, and Yemeni journalists were able to practice their profession – especially online – with freedoms that were not found in the region. For example, the Yemeni media’s pluralism that started with the constitution of multi-party systems in 1990, did not go unnoticed and the country was chosen to host the Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Arab Media organised by UNESCO in January 1996.
By 2013 and according to the Ministry of Information’s records there were 17 daily newspapers, 155 weekly, 26 by-weeklies, 81 monthly periodicals, 16 quarterly magazines yielding a total of 295 publications. There were also 4 state TV channels and 15 private TV channels. And there were two national radios, 13 local radios, and at least five private radio stations. The first half of 2014 was especially promising as the results of the National Dialogue Conference, which were translated into a draft constitution outlined exemplary spaces for freedoms and civil liberties in general including that for free media.
However, everything went downfall since September 2014 with the conflict caused by the Houthis’ coup d’état. In terms of media institutions today there are only ten print media running and they are controlled by the rebels. There are only two state TV stations running which are also controlled by the Houthis, and another two privately owned by them. By the end of 2015, there are only 12 local radio stations all run by the Houthis and used to spread their propaganda.
It is not only an issue of media institutions whether state or private. What is worse is the culture of fear and oppression of journalists that is growing every day in the Houthi controlled areas of the country. Official reports by the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, the Arab Federation of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists among other international reports by rights’ based organisations such as Article 19, the Committee for Protection of Journalists, Journalists Without Borders, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch indicate that Yemen under the control of the Houthis is indeed the worst place for journalists currently.
Yemeni journalists are detained without just cause, kidnapped, tortured and even killed. The activist and press community are living in fear as their phones are being monitored, their movements are being tracked and every written word is judged according to the Houthi’s standards.
The Yemeni scene in the north is filled with horror stories of underground prisons that are used by the Houthis to keep outspoken journalists and political rivals in. Such as the detention of the opposition journalist and lecturer at Sana’a Media College Yahya alGubaihi and his son because he went to receive treatment in a Saudi hospital. Also the detention of Yousef Ajlan who runs the opposition Almasdar Online website, and journalist Abdulrahim Mohsin and Kamil alkhawdani among others. In fact, the story of Kamil alkhawdani lends evidence to the brutality of the Houthis as they raided his home, beat his wife, shot his daughter before taking him away for days of torture and interrogation.
These are only examples, and today 18 journalists are still being held in Houthi prisons living in inhuman circumstances being physically and mentally tortured. They have been prosecuted without due trials and their fate is yet to be known.
It’s not only journalists, but also activists and members of the civil society and today there are tens detained in Houthi prisons who are considered, as stated by the head of the Houthi dialogue committee in Kuwait last year, Mohammed Abdulsalam prisoners of war and not of conscience, according to people present during the negotiations.
Members of the civil society in Yemen who are living under the Houthi control are living in fear and prefer not to take part in any activities and lay low rather than risk their lives or the safety of their families.
On the contrary to all the above, the situation of media in the liberated areas is gradually picking up pace and improving post conflict as a number of media institutions are operating today. There are 21 newspapers currently operating in Aden, Hadramout and Marib; three are state run and the rest privately owned. Some of the private media is run by opposition to Hadi’s government and they exercise their right to free expression.
We at the Information Ministry understand the importance of freedom of expression and how this will help the reconciliation and peace building process. We understand that Yemenis of all political affiliations and socio-cultural backgrounds need to feel they have the right to express themselves and their views without fear of prosecution. The ability to do this is vital for the society to heal. The rebuilding of the liberated areas is currently underway as the recovery and reparation process is taking place with the generous help of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, there are around two and half million Yemenis now who work in KSA and send money to their families all over Yemen. And with the recovery process underway we hope that soon the stability will return and the entire situation will improve.
At the end of the day, not only will Yemen and Yemenis suffer because of the culture of fear and dictatorship of the Houthis control. But such an environment will create a generation of war whose values will be twisted and their understanding of right and wrong as well. They would be easy targets for extremist groups who will brain wash them and use them in their vicious terrorist attacks all over the world.
It has been proven once and again that without education and freedom of expression that leads to cultural awareness and intellectual debates, the society, especially its naive youth, will be vulnerable to fundamentalists and would blindly follow any agenda as they are not able to have alternative sources of information. And eventually, we must understand that Yemeni youth being raised under the Houthi control are a ticking time bomb that will explode soon if the world does not genuinely take interest in the culture of fear being installed under their rule.
MOAMMAR AL-ERYANI is the Minister of Information in the Republic of Yemen.