Radio Becomes New Battlefield in Yemen War
Stations attacked and threatened by Houthi rebels in attempt to influence largely illiterate listenership
On a bright January morning, Abbas Al-Akbari, a seasoned producer at Hodeidah Radio, glanced outside his office window and noticed a pick-up truck rapidly approaching his building.
Just a few minutes later, about five fighters jumped out of the vehicle and stormed his office. They vandalized the recording room, confiscated equipment, and looted the entire contents of the station’s archives, which housed over 50 years’ worth of material documenting Hodeidah’s history.
The city’s radio station has remained shut ever since.
Al-Akbari’s story is far from unusual. As the war in Yemen between a Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels continues to spiral out of control, a new battlefield has emerged in the war-torn country: that is, over the electromagnetic spectrum.
Indeed, radio in Yemen — where one in every two people can neither read nor write — has become an important tool in reshaping the narratives surrounding the war. Aware of this reality, Houthis have waged a ruthless battle against media outlets and radio stations across the country.
“It’s not only radio stations that are under attack, but the entire media in the country,” says Amir Basloom, a manager of a large radio station in eastern Yemen. “They storm your office, confiscate equipment and detain workers, and then tell you what you’re allowed to broadcast,” he told the Media Line.
As a result, most radio stations in Yemen have gone off air. Those that stayed in business began taking orders from Houthi strongmen.
This was the case, for example, with Hayat FM, one of Yemen’s most prominent radio stations, which aired on 104.7 FM. Last month, in a sudden turn of events, the station was renamed “Voice of the People” and began airing on 107.0 FM. The change took place after Houthis stormed the station’s headquarters and took its workers hostage. No one was allowed to enter or leave the building for over a week, according to several sources on the ground.
“The risk is not just physical, it’s also financial,” Basloom explained. “The Houthi rebels force all businesses to donate a portion of their revenues to the so-called war effort.”
Radio stations and media outlets, which benefit from ad money, have been disproportionately affected by this tax, he says.
“If you refuse to pay you’re immediately considered a traitor or a heretic,” Basloom explained, adding that “one might be imprisoned, or even killed, for refusing to donate money [to the Houthis].”
Indeed, most stations seeking to continue broadcasting independent content have been forced to relocate to areas outside of Houthi control, including to other Arab capitals such as Riyadh, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi.
“We had no other choice but to shut down our headquarters,” said Masnour Al-Rida, a radio broadcaster who asked to keep his station’s name undisclosed. “We now use Facebook to spread our content, but it’s certainly not as effective [as traditional broadcast],” he told the Media Line.
Ali Al-Salami, another station manager who still operates from Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, agrees.
“They say that there is freedom to air whatever [content] we want, but it’s not real freedom,” he told The Media Line. Any [content] that might be damaging to the Houthis or questions their legitimacy cannot be aired. Because station managers are afraid to upset the Houthis, they often avoid broadcasting news or political programs altogether.”
Indeed, traditional radio in Yemen has become nearly defunct. Only a handful of the 26 stations that once existed in Sana’a remain functional.
Meanwhile, Eram FM and Sam FM — two of the largest stations still operating in the country — continue to broadcast pro-Houthi propaganda, including messages of support for Hizbullah and Iran. Likewise, smaller community stations located in rural Yemen have been airing radical messages to attract young men to join the Houthis’ ranks.
“If you tune into one of these stations, you will likely hear reports on the destruction caused by [the Saudi-led] coalition’s air raids, or maybe hear popular songs calling for war and encouraging people to join the fighting,” Al-Salami said.
Earlier this summer, Sam FM launched a campaign to raise funds for Iranian proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon. Over the course of just ten days, the station managed to raise nearly $300,000 to assist the group, which has been strapped for cash since US economic sanctions on Iran were re-imposed.
In a video released at the conclusion of the campaign, Sam FM’s general manager, Hamoud Mohammad Sharaf, celebrated the fundraiser by chanting, “Death to America! Death to Israel! Victory for Islam!”
To challenge growing Iranian influence in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has started ramping up its own broadcasting efforts in the region.
Over the past few months, the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation added several hours of content and programming to its Al-Azam station, geared toward Saudi troops deployed in Yemen. Airing from Saudi territory, the station can be heard in many parts of Yemen, usually through satellite connection.
“The Saudis have been jamming radio in Yemen,” says Yemeni radio broadcaster Al-Rida. “It’s also possible that they have been helping anti-Houthi stations broadcast [their content] from Saudi territory, using shortwave frequency,” he adds, alluding to Riyadh’s growing efforts to rein in Houthi propaganda broadcasted across Yemen.
But Al-Rida told The Media Line that he is skeptical that this will help sway public opinion.
“The Saudi intervention is only successful in [northern] Yemen, while the rest of the country continues to listen to broadcasts controlled in one way or another by the Houthis,” he said. “With only a few hours of electricity a day in most parts of the country, people can’t be picky about which station they listen to; they simply tune into whatever they find and consume their news from there.”