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Harsh conditions pressured many Yemeni journalists to flee either abroad to practise their jobs more freely or to relatively stable Yemeni governorates.
Abu Bakr Batheeb
However, journalists’ ongoing struggle in Yemen is quite challenging since they have become the public enemy of all political, military and social forces.
Yemen ranked 169th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2022. The organisation has previously designated the Houthis as the most dangerous group after the Islamic State in terms of targeting journalists and taking them hostage.
This suffering has made journalists the weakest link in Yemen. The deteriorating economic conditions piled on journalists’ misfortune as their living conditions declined and their salaries were slashed. Many newspapers shut down, constituting another element of pressure on journalists and the main reason for their worsening situation.
These harsh conditions pressured many Yemeni journalists to flee either abroad to practise their jobs more freely or to relatively stable Yemeni governorates that could provide protection and stability for them and their families. Some journalists even switched professions to earn a living and avoid the dangers associated with journalism.
At the same time, dozens of Yemeni journalists and activists sought asylum and migrated to European countries like France, Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, seeking political and humanitarian protection.
Yemen: The Geography of Death
Yemeni Writer Mohamed al-Qadi documented what journalists experience in his book Selfie al-Mawt or The Death Selfie.
He says, “It is difficult for a land that you are supposed to walk on holding your head up to turn into a monster that haunts you just because you are a journalist that only conveys the truth. It is cruel when your homeland is too small for you, when you are frightened, fearing for your family, just because you are a journalist.”
The war in Yemen damaged all aspects of life. Over 80 per cent of Yemenis were affected by the devastating repercussions of war.
This direct impact of war also affected journalism, the primary mode of conveying the reality of this misery to the world. The danger to journalists and media organisations is imminent and direct. Journalists grew into targets for all parties, either due to objectively reporting the truth or their affiliation with a political party, religious group or region.
Eight Years and 45 Dead
A report by the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate issued in June 2022 documented a total number of 45 murders of journalists between 2014 to the first quarter of 2022.
According to the report, the Houthis were responsible for 17 of these killings. On the other hand, the airstrikes by the Saudi-led Arab coalition killed 14 journalists, 12 others were murdered by unknown people, and terrorist groups killed 2.
The persecution of journalists, including enforced disappearance, arrest, arbitrary detention and torture, reached over 1465 cases.
Furthermore, over 150 local media outlets, in addition to offices of foreign media, were closed. Most of these were located in Houthi-controlled areas since media and journalism were centralised there before the Houthis took over.
Arrests and Death Sentences
In an interview with Fanack, Ahmad al-Jabr, a member of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, says, “The Houthis’ September 2014 Coup hit journalism hard.” Al-Jabr described the experiences of official and unofficial media platforms after the coup as a “massacre.”
Independent journalistic activity and civil life in the Houthi-controlled areas ceased to exist as a result of the restrictions, oppression and violations of journalistic freedom.
Although the media in the Houthi areas have sided with the Houthis entirely, this has not spared these regions’ journalists, who have fallen victim to the same violations. There were 16 violations of journalists’ rights in the first half of 2022 in the Houthi-controlled areas.
Local and international human rights reports indicate that the Houthis still detain ten journalists, four of whom face a death sentence. All local efforts and international mediations to release the journalists or grant them their civil rights, such as family calls or medical care, have been in vain.
Journalists: A Bargaining Chip
In July 2022, the Yemeni organisation SAM for Rights and Liberties called on the UN and the Red Cross to pressure the Houthis to urgently transfer journalist Tawfiq al-Mansouri to a hospital and to release him and his colleagues without any conditions.
The organisation had previously denounced the international community’s response to the Houthis’ attempts at using journalists as bargaining chips for political agendas.
According to the organisation, this approach worsened the misery of these journalists and dismissed all hope of the international community having an effective humanitarian role in easing their plight.
In May 2022, Amnesty International said that the Houthi de facto authorities continue to deny al-Mansouri life-saving medical treatment despite his chronic illness, which includes diabetes, kidney failure and heart problems.
Amnesty International called on the Houthis to quash the death sentences and immediately release four journalists facing execution following an “unfair trial.”
However, all these calls and pleas were ignored by the Houthis, who have always treated journalists with hostility.
To mistreat journalists, the Houthis follow the directions of their leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, who used to assault media figures and journalists in his speeches. He described them as “mercenaries, spies and traitors” and “more dangerous to Yemen than other combat traitors.”
In an interview with Fanack, journalist and legal activist Jamal Mohsen considered that the recent decline in violations in Houthi-controlled areas is not a good sign since it proves that reporting work has halted.
Journalism Abandoned its Mission
The restrictions imposed on Yemeni journalists hampered the media and journalism’s ability to perform its monitoring role. In this regard, Ahmad al-Jabr says, “Now, all parties look at journalism and journalists with extreme hostility with varying degrees.”
A journalist who resides in Sana’a confirmed to Fanack that the Houthi-controlled city is devoid of any journalism. “The same picture with the same colour and the same subpar content in every outlet,” is how the journalist, who preferred to stay anonymous for his safety, described journalism in the city.
He said, “All journalistic publications, except those of the Houthis, disappeared. Publications deteriorated to a gruesome level in terms of content, reach and quality, and they all serve the Houthis.”
He added, “Journalism in Yemen gave up its main mission almost entirely and formed different blocs working for this or that party in the fray, either for funds, political or ideological affiliation, or a common objective.”
A Government without Authority
The fragility of state centralisation in the areas under the legitimate government’s control exposed journalists to grave dangers. Security and military authorities targeted journalists in accordance with political and territorial agendas and regional guardianship.
Hundreds of journalists’ lives are in danger as a result of impunity. The matter has only worsened since all authorities abandon their legal and moral responsibilities towards these crimes.
The number of cases of abuse of journalists in governorates under the legitimate government’s control totalled 23 cases during the first half of 2022. Most of these violations were committed by parties the government has no control over, such as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and its affiliated factions.
None of these parties was charged with taking journalists’ lives as they denied all involvement in the assassinations or murders of journalists. The judicial authorities’ investigations were unable to prove charges against specific parties due to a lack of effective operational mechanisms at the logistical and financial levels to handle such cases.
What happened to Journalist Ahmed Maher exemplifies the violations journalists are exposed to in government-controlled areas. In August 2022, an STC faction kidnapped Maher in Aden and, through threats and torture, coerced him into recording false confessions.
Mohsen emphasises that taking forced confessions violates the procedures of criminal law. According to him, forced confessions are legally unviable. He added, “The rule of law is a must. Suppose the state has to prosecute journalists; then it must be in specialised courts.”
According to Mohsen, prosecuting journalists and subjecting them to criminal laws is a constitutional violation and contradicts what was stipulated in the constitution and the Press and Publications Law in force.
Amnesty International demanded the Yemeni government stop harassing and prosecuting journalists in government-controlled areas. In a statement published in August 2022, the organisation said, “Journalists should not be treated like criminals simply for being critical of government institutions and employees.”
Its response following the murder of journalist Saber al-Haidari by the bombing of his car in Aden in June 2022 proved the passive, helpless role of the government. It only responded with an official statement by the head of the Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad al-Alimi, demanding and directing – with no influence nor authority – security and judicial apparatus to hurry to investigate the incident and bring the culprits to justice.
The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate has warned of continued assassinations of journalists through booby-trapped explosions in Aden.
At the same time, no results were produced in investigations looking into similar previous crimes against journalists that were targeted similarly. Among these journalists were Rasha al-Harazi, Nabil al-Quaety, Adeeb al-Janani and Ahmad Bou Saleh.
A Margin of Freedom
Previous Yemeni academic studies about the civil and journalistic landscape prior to 2014 documented that it was fairly advanced compared to its neighbouring countries or third-world countries.
Journalism in Yemen has progressed since 1990, when southern and northern Yemen unified. The first Press and Publications law was issued in the same year, which was a tangible development as it allowed for an acceptable margin of freedom for journalists.
The law allowed for the establishment of partisan, national and private newspapers and media institutions. It also provided a decent working environment for correspondents of newspapers, news agencies and Arab and international TV channels in Yemen.
According to the Yemeni annual statistic for 2013, the number of official, national, partisan and private newspapers reached 295. By 2022, only six newspapers were left in Sana’a, all affiliated and loyal to the Houthis.
Compared to the situation in the Houthi-controlled areas, the journalistic landscape in the government-controlled areas, and Aden particularly, is acceptable.
According to the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, the number of official and national newspapers and press websites operating in the governorate totals 35, most of which were established after 2015.
Some newspapers replaced the paper medium with websites due to Yemen‘s poor economic conditions. Their online presence has allowed these newspapers to reach their audiences in a faster, more effective and less costly manner.
Regional Polarisation for Journalists
In a violent and chaotic environment, influential international and local forces are keen to attract as many journalists, media platforms and institutions as possible to establish their presence and impact Yemeni society online and on the ground.
These forces aim to exploit the media to manipulate public opinion so that it aligns with their agendas and interests. Moreover, they use media and influencers to endorse and promote their agendas.
Some influencers were happy to deal with these regional and international powers. Harsh living conditions pushed many journalists to side with and work for specific forces, which runs counter to Yemeni national interests.
Journalist Ahmad al-Jabr believes this polarisation is a natural consequence of an exceptional state of affairs in which journalism in Yemen is split between warring parties.
According to al-Jabr, this state has divided journalists into three categories; those loyal to the Houthis, most of whom could not flee for financial, familial or security reasons; those who work for the legitimate government and reside in areas where legitimate institutions are located; and those who work for the STC.
Moreover, journalists were affected by this polarisation as a consequence of the supporting countries’ quest to influence the political and social scene in Yemen.
The vast amounts of money spent buying or building platforms from scratch with brand-new names and themes, predetermined stances, policies and agendas are a manifestation of this dynamic that is present in newspapers, TV channels, online media platforms and social media.
Al-Jabr provides an emotional justification for his colleagues as he considers the polarisation a result of specific forces’ dominance on the ground. These powers imposed a state of obligatory polarisation, using the threat of force to pressure journalists into working for them.
Al-Jabr believes that most of his colleagues who work with these forces that took advantage of the harsh conditions in Yemen are practising journalism as something that is imposed on them, even though it contradicts all their principles and beliefs.
In April 2022, one of the most polarised scenes happened during the Yemeni Consultations in Riyadh. The outcome of the consultations resulted in the formation of the new Presidential Leadership Council and excluded former President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi from the political picture.
Riyadh invited dozens of media professionals, journalists and activists on social media to cover the consultations. They were granted various benefits, such as residency in Saudi Arabia and substantial financial rewards. This Saudi move aimed to create a public opinion supportive of Riyadh’s political decisions and contain any voices that might criticise some of the procedures as unconstitutional.
Yemeni journalists have become the weakest link in Yemen’s tragic reality. Many believe journalists were let down by all, including the international community and international organisations.
Journalists call on international organisations and influential states to use their networks to pressure the warring parties to release detained journalists, provide them with medical care, and grant them the human right to see their families. These international powers can fulfil these demands by influencing regional forces that control the local parties that violate the freedom of the press and journalists.
However, these countries only make an effort to exchange prisoners of war and leaders of armed groups, not journalists and activists.
The responses of these influential countries and international organisations to the current reality in Yemen are nothing more than statements and denouncements posted on social media. This passive, helpless attitude does not pressure the warring parties to enact reforms and save the Yemeni journalist.
Various bodies, such as the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, the Federation of Arab Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, make efforts to improve the working environment for journalists in Yemen.
However, these efforts are inadequate and do not go beyond social media.
The International Federation of Journalists attempted to document violations against Yemeni journalists to submit them to the UN Committee Against Torture. Yet, these efforts are insufficient to prosecute the culprits for lack of capacity and necessary expertise.
Ineffective Roles for Journalists
Journalists lack mechanisms and means to guarantee some influence over the different forces that ensure their safety and guarantee they are regularly paid their monthly salaries.
Still, many groups of journalists have occasionally adopted professional and humanitarian initiatives to highlight their suffering.
In an effort to influence international organisations and the international community, these journalists have made dozens of calls and appeals through the media, websites and social media.
However, the impact of these appeals stops soon after the campaign ends and its “hashtag” has run its course.