During much of the twentieth century, Yemen was virtually cut off from the outside world as a result of the theocracy of the Imams Yahya and Ahmad. The revolution of 1962 ended the isolation and signalled the start – boosted by the introduction of western-style democracy since 1990 – of an array of newspapers, many of which still exist today. However, most of them represent a particular political, tribal or economic faction in Yemen; only a few are really independent. Moreover, many opposition newspapers have been closed down by the authorities at one time or another, their editors and journalists imprisoned or otherwise harassed. This has put a severe dent in official Yemeni press freedom. Internet sites are often blocked by authorities, but show remarkable resilience and ingenuity, opening the world to Yemen and vice versa.
In Yemeni cities newspaper kiosks attract small crowds of people around their stalls. On the surface it would appear that newspapers are widely read in Yemen, but this is beside the truth. Many adult Yemenis are still illiterate; three quarters of the population lives a rural life, far away from the newspaper stalls. As a result, only a small section of the Yemeni people has access to newspapers. A selection of government newspapers provide daily editions. Most papers are published weekly, twice weekly or biweekly. Pro-government papers (Al Thawra, Al Jumhuriyya, 14-October, Al Sharara) can have a circulation of up to 50.000 copies, and are distributed throughout the country, including all government offices.
Other papers are limited to a few thousand copies, and are only distributed in the larger cities. Two English language papers are published in Yemen, Yemen Times and Yemen Observer. The Yemen Times is considered one of the most objective, independent newspapers. Most Yemenis cannot read it as it is in English. The censor therefore seems to grant the newspaper greater freedom of speech and room to manoeuvre. The current editor, Nadia Al Saqqaf, daughter of the paper’s founder Al Abdulaziz Al Saqqaf, is the first and sole female Yemeni editor to date. In 2006, Nadia Al Saqqaf received the Gebran Tueni award from the World Association of Newspapers (wan) for her outstanding courage, ambition, leadership and professionalism.
The Yemeni newspaper landscape is quite diverse and dynamic. According to government statistics, in 2005 there were 57 newspapers and 66 periodicals. More then performing the traditional role of informing a large public, Yemeni newspapers are very much a debating ground. Opinions and opinionated articles fill a significant portion of the pages and many newspapers are strongly coloured by their tribal or political background, or by financiers seeking election or other short-term goals. As a consequence, there is or has been quite a number of small and sometimes short-lived newspapers with limited distribution. Nowadays, most Yemeni newspapers also publish on the Internet, thus contributing to the growth of information available to Yemenis in and outside of Yemen.
Yemeni journalists are well organized and have in the last decade showed remarkable supra-factional solidarity in the face of government restrictions, together concentrating on reports on the widespread corruption. In 2007, Parliament debated a new press and media law, but according to various journalists, national and international professional organisations, press freedom and freedom of expression have since only deteriorated. In the face of a deteriorating economy, the guerrilla war in the north and the widespread discontent in the south, opposition newspapers are regularly and increasingly being shut down by the government or otherwise thwarted. Many journalists are increasingly hindered in their work – or even jailed.
In 2007, the Yemen Observer was temporarily closed down after publishing the Danish cartoons illustrating an article condemning the cartoons. Many journalists walk the thin line between self- censorship and the risk of being officially or unofficially hindered or having their newspaper shut down. There are no reports of journalists being killed, but the list of persecuted, imprisoned or harassed journalists is growing. As a consequence, Reporters Without Borders has placed Yemen a mere 143th on a list of 169 countries.
On the positive side, in May 2008, a Sana’a judge ordered the Ministry of Information to reissue newspaper Al Wasat’s newspaper license. In April 2008, Al Wasat lost its official license for the first time because it had purportedly ‘violated national unity’. Al Wasat has been a target – being closed down now and then – of the various Saleh-governments throughout the years. In 2005, it’s editor Jamal Amer was beaten up and harassed by unknown men. In 2006, Amer was awarded the Press Freedom Award by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (cpj). Another award-winning journalist is Nadia al-Saqqaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, who received the Gebran Tueni Award from the World Association of Newspapers in 2006.
Box: The most poignant example of persecution and harassment of journalists is that of Abdel Karim Al Khaiwani. The only Yemeni journalist not to censor himself, Al Khaiwani addresses all subjects and repeatedly pays for it physically, psychologically and financially. Al Khaiwani was journalist and editor of the Zaydi opposition newspaper Al Shoura, later published on a website under the same name. Al Shoura is the prime source of information on the guerrilla war in the north, on which information is hard to get, because journalists are not permitted to enter or report on the north. Al Khaiwani does report on it and on other topics which are off-limits, and has consequently and repeatedly been beaten up and threatened with his (and his family’s) life. In 2008 Al Khaiwani an official death sentence was demanded by the prosecutor, the judge sentenced him to six years in prison.
Television has long been dominated by the two state television channels, based in Aden (TV1) and Sana’a (TV2). Its reports are typical of Arab state television, reporting on the whereabouts and the beneficial deeds of the president and his guests. However, since the oil boom, emigration to Saudi Arabia and the launch of satellite television, many houses have had reason and means to invest in satellite dishes. These offer the Yemeni – half the population is still illiterate – a new window on the world. Most popular are the programs of independent channels Al Jazeera, Al Arabiyya and the Hezbollah channel of Al Manar.
In the first months of 2008, two new Yemeni satellite TV channels (Saba, Al Yemenia) were launched, with a third (Al Eman, from the religious Al Eman-university of Islah forman Al Zindani) to be launched in the near future.
Box: Given that Yemen is not of the utmost importance in world politics, reporters from the international satellite channels rarely visit Yemen. However, local correspondents of Al Arabiyya and Al Jazeera have repeatedly been held and interrogated by the police. Many reporters from foreign (satellite) channels were prevented from covering the social unrest – in reaction to economic problems, rising unemployment and the general alienation of the South – in southern Yemen in the autumn of 2007. Al Arabiyya reported that video footage of their stringers has been confiscated fourteen times since 2003.
Since 2005, the number of Internet cafés and home Internet connections in the larger cities has exploded. Many of the young generation – over half of the total population – now gather information that was previously inaccessible, because of censorship, lack of finance and poor communication possibilities. As a result, the iron grip of government and conservatism on Yemeni society seems to be loosening, although the rural majority is largely unaffected by this development.
As is often the case in other Middle Eastern countries, the government has started to block sites and weblogs considered detrimental to national unity. This has been the case with yemenportal.net, an initiative of Walid Al Saqqaf, one of Yemen’s leading journalists, former editor of the English language Yemen Times and member of a family of journalists. His father – the first editor and founder of the Yemen Times Abdulaziz Al Saqqaf – was shortly imprisoned in 1994 and killed in a car accident in 1999, which some believe was not accidental.
Yemenportal is a news platform and web crawler, presenting the fast growing Yemeni online community with an unprecedented comprehensive view of Yemeni news. Yemenportal also publishes banned news reports, which prompted the government to block the site three times early 2008, while assailants physically attacked the office of Yemenportal. The site now runs from Sweden, Yemeni visitors using special software and proxy sites to circumvent the blockade. It serves not only as a independent source of information, but also as a meeting point for the opposition.
Banner: Walid Al Saqqaf, of the news engine Yemenportal, said that Internet now plays an important role in Yemeni society, even if less than one percent of Yemenis has access to it. “In a country like Yemen, culture plays a crucial role in disseminating information. If one person reads an article on the Internet, he will spread this message to literally hundreds of people. Word of mouth is extremely powerful in our society.” (From mennassat.com)
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