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Although the Ottomans introduced newspapers to North Yemen at the end of the 19th century, the development of a modern mass media was relatively slow under the monarchical rule from 1918 to 1962. The capital, Sana’a, had only one printing press until 1970, and its first Yemeni-owned publications only emerged a decade earlier. As for South Yemen, the first broadcast infrastructure emerged during the 1940s, when the region of Aden was under the control of the British occupying forces.
In 1940, the British introduced the first radio station in Aden to convey news and directives regarding World War II. The station closed in 1945, but the medium of radio broadcasting had proved popular in both the north and the south and led to the establishment of Sana’a Radio in 1946 and Aden Radio in 1954. In 1946, the Free Yemeni movement in South Yemen acquired a printing press and published the newspaper Sawt al-Yemen to spread its anti-government message.
In the years that followed, both North and South Yemen’s leadership banned private or party-affiliated publications and instead produced government-owned newspapers. After North Yemen became a republic in 1962, the northern government began publishing two daily newspapers – al-Thawra in Sana’a and al-Jumhuria in Taiz. Following South Yemen’s independence from British rule in 1967, the southern government published the daily newspaper on 14 October and the weekly al-Thawra.
South Yemen’s first black and white television broadcasts began in 1965, initially reliant upon British infrastructure. Television was introduced in North Yemen in 1975. Like the printed press and radio, early incarnations of television in both regions were entirely monopolized by the government.
In 1974, the southern government nationalized South Yemen’s economy, bringing the region’s mass media under state control and granting the minister of information the right to appoint and dismiss newspaper editors and radio or television directors. A similar situation emerged in North Yemen with the 1976 establishment of the Yemeni Public Corporation for Radio and Television, controlled by the northern government’s ministry of information and responsible for all broadcasts.
When Yemen unified in 1990, the media environment changed considerably. Although radio and television broadcasting remained state-owned, the government declared that political parties and private individuals could own and publish newspapers. Many new publications emerged at a time of relatively minimal government intervention. The 1990 Press and Publications Law granted every citizen the right to publish their own publication.
The law also outlined the foundations of a more repressive media environment by prohibiting content that criticized religion, encouraged sectarianism, or incited violence. Criticism against the ruling authorities was only tolerated if it was deemed ‘constructive.’ Following the 1994 civil war between southern separatists and the Sana’a-based government, the ruling authorities began to intervene more and more in media production and the freedom of expression that had characterized the country’s early unity was significantly curbed.
Foreign satellite television channels began to permeate Yemeni society in the 1990s, but given the relatively high costs of satellite dishes (Yemen being one of the poorest countries in the Middle East), government-controlled terrestrial channels continued to dominate viewership figures throughout the decade. The internet was introduced in 1996, but its penetration has been hindered by an underdeveloped network and the difficulties in connecting the country’s rural population.
Following the 2011 protests and ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s new political agreement signalled initial optimism for greater media freedom. A number of Yemeni-orientated satellite channels opened abroad, in addition to several private radio stations and online news publications within the country. Yet the country’s ongoing instability and the Saudi-led armed intervention have created an atmosphere of fear that makes the country one of the most dangerous for journalists to operate in.
Freedom of Expression
The current political climate in Yemen, with Houthi rebels in power in Sana’a, the UN recognized-government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi based in both Aden and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), and an ongoing conflict, is highly volatile and restrictive of freedom of expression. The country ranks 170th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
Article 42 of the 1991 Yemeni constitution stipulates that ‘the state shall guarantee freedom of thought and expression of opinion in speech, writing, and photography within the limits of the law.’ These limits are primarily dictated by the 1990 Press and Publications Law, which outlines fines and up to a year imprisonment for journalists who publish material contrary to national unity, Islam, or the ‘goals’ of the Yemeni revolution.
The Yemeni government also introduced the Specialized Press and Publications Court, established in Sana’a in 2009, to prosecute media cases per the country’s penal code. However, the court has ceased to operate following the government’s exile from the city. Although the country passed a Freedom of Information Law in 2012, becoming the second Arab state to do so after Jordan, there are growing concerns that it is not adequately implemented.
International Media Support (IMS) remarks that self-censorship was pervasive in Yemen in 2011 due to mounting pressure from government authorities, several high-profile cases of media outlets being closed down, and journalists being prosecuted. In 2009, following the outbreak of conflict in the south, the government banned eight prominent daily and weekly newspapers, some of which remain closed. In 2010, Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 34 days.
He had contradicted an official government account of a missile strike on an al-Qaeda training camp, which was later revealed to have been orchestrated by the United States. For his role in revealing US-led drone attacks on Yemeni territory, Shaye was convicted of being an Al-Qaeda operative and imprisoned until July 2013. He was allowed to serve the final two years of his sentence under house arrest.
Following a Houthi-led uprising against the Yemeni government in 2014 and the Saudi-led air war on Yemen and Houthi targets commenced in March 2015, the media environment has become increasingly hostile. A combination of airstrikes and urban combat means that journalists and broadcasters are increasingly at risk when reporting the news. For example, in April 2015, a Saudi airstrike hit the Sana’a office of TV station Yemen Today, killing a journalist and other employees.
The Committee to Project Journalists estimates that at least six journalists have been killed since the airstrikes began. Moreover, Houthi rebels and affiliates have embarked on a targeted intimidation campaign against certain media outlets, directly leading to the closure of 16 newspapers, nine television channels, and 33 news websites between January and June 2015. Foreign journalists have also been subject to intimidation and violence, with Norwegian and American freelancers abducted by Houthi fighters in March and May 2015 and released weeks later.
Television is by far the most popular medium in Yemen, owing to the widespread access to TV sets and the country’s high illiteracy rates that preclude access to other media. A 2010 survey by the BBC World Service Trust found that 86 percent of Yemeni respondents watched television daily. Moreover, the survey concluded that only 14 percent of respondents opted to watch Yemen’s state-run channels instead of satellite alternatives. In 2012, the most popular foreign satellite channels were the Gulf pan-Arab broadcasters al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera and two overseas channels specifically geared towards Yemeni audiences, the UK-based Suhail TV and the Egypt-based al-Saidah.
State-owned domestic broadcasters
The Yemeni government broadcasts four state-owned channels, all of which have traditionally served as government mouthpieces for news and current affairs:
Yemen TV – Also known as Channel One, Yemen TV was established 1975 in what was then North Yemen. It broadcasts from Sana’a and is the government’s flagship channel. In early 2015, Houthi militants seized the Yemen TV offices and began broadcasting pro-Houthi content. In response President Hadi, initially operating from Saudi Arabia, established a satellite channel under the same name and logo, broadcasting pro-government content.
Saba TV – A state-owned satellite channel that broadcasts from Sana’a, with programming aimed at young people and students. In February 2015, the station’s staff went on strike after not being paid since November, a problem that extended to all public sector media employees at the time due to the government’s preoccupation with the Houthi-led rebellion.
Al-Iman TV – The Yemeni government’s religious satellite channel was established in 2008, in an attempt to promote moderate Islamic views and guard against fundamentalism.
Overseas Yemeni-focused channels
Suhail TV – Satellite channel that was initially based in London, having been founded in 2009 by affiliates of the Islamist al-Islah opposition party. Following the ouster of President Saleh in 2011, the channel established an office in Sana’a, which was subsequently raided by Houthis in 2014, ceasing its broadcasts. At the time of writing, the channel remains off-air but continues to function as an online news source.
Al-Saidah – Established in 2007, this is considered the first Yemeni-owned non-governmental channel, and broadcasts from Cairo, Egypt. The channel predominantly focuses on entertainment broadcasting but also airs political debates.
Al-Masirah – Established in 2012 and broadcasting from Lebanon, al-Masirah TV is owned by Houthi affiliates and serves as the Houthi movement’s primary television outlet in Yemen. It broadcasts pro-Houthi news footage including the alleged capture of Saudi soldiers and thwarted airstrikes.
The 2010 BBC World Service Trust survey revealed that only 20 per cent of Yemenis listened to the radio every day, with the majority of listeners based in rural areas. Domestic frequencies were traditionally monopolized by the government, which operates a nationwide network via Yemen Radio.
State-owned stations include the Sana’a and Aden national stations and the Sana’a-based al-Shabab Radio that broadcasts four hours of content directed at young listeners. The Republic of Yemen Radio also oversees ten local stations throughout the country. Since the 2011 uprising and the 2014 Houthi rebellion, state radio broadcasting has been sporadic, depending on conflict levels in certain areas.
Until 2012, there were no private radio stations in Yemen. The 2013 Audiovisual and Electronic Media Law paved the way for the legalization of private stations, although the stipulated licensing fees were extremely high. Given the ongoing conflict, there is effectively no legal framework surrounding radio stations’ creation, meaning that some have established themselves on local bandwidths, and several have emerged online. BBC Monitoring also observes that pro-Houthi and pro-Hadi supporters have increasingly taken to radio ahead of television broadcasting in recent months, with the latter plagued by electricity shortages and service interruptions.
Newspapers are the third most popular news source in Yemen after television and radio, with the 2010 BBC World Service Trust survey reporting that only 12 per cent of Yemenis read a newspaper every day. This readership is hampered both by the country’s high illiteracy rate (adult literacy was estimated at 65.3 percent by UNICEF in 2012) and that newspapers only circulate in the major cities. Although privately-owned newspapers are permitted, the majority suffer from poor daily sales and low advertising revenue.
State-owned al-Thawra had an estimated daily circulation of 60,000 in 2012; no other daily publication in the country sold more than 20,000. The current print newspaper landscape reflects the ongoing conflict in the country, with many newspapers’ offices being closed down or representing the views of the dominant force in the region.
Al-Thawra – State-owned daily newspaper founded in 1962. It maintained a staunchly pro-government stance until 2011. In 2014, Houthi rebels stormed the newspaper’s offices in Sanaa and seized control of the publication. As of January 2017, the BBC reports that the newspaper remains under Houthi control.
Al-Jumhuria – State-owned newspaper established in Taiz in 1962. Similar to al-Thawra, al-Jumhuria has a history of being resolutely pro-government. In 2011, it denounced previous media coverage critical of the emerging uprising and voiced support for peaceful protests. In light of the recent conflict, it now operates primarily as an online newspaper.
Akhbar al-Yawm – Privately owned newspaper that was founded in 2003 and established a reputation for publishing stories critical of the government and airing opposition grievances. The newspaper’s Sanaa offices were also stormed by Houthi rebels in 2014. It subsequently relocated to Aden, where it was forcibly closed down in May 2016 by rebel forces affiliated with the separatist Southern Movement.
Aden al-Ghad – Established in Aden by media professionals affiliated with the separatist Southern Movement in 2007. In 2014, the newspaper was temporarily banned by government authorities, but it has since resumed publication.
Al-Yemen al-Yawm – Newspaper operating from Sanaa and affiliated with former President Saleh. The media outlet also operates a TV station of the same name.
Al-Masirah – Pro-Houthi newspaper published in Sa’ada. It is part of the media organization that operates the pro-Houthi television channel of the same name.
Al-Sahwa – Weekly newspaper established in 1986 in Sana’a. It is affiliated with the al-Islah opposition party. After facing increasing intimidation and raids in recent years, initially by pro-Saleh forces in 2011, the newspaper has migrated to an online platform, al-Sahwa.net.
Yemen Times – Established in 1990 in Sana’a as Yemen’s first English-language newspaper. It publishes twice weekly via its own printing press. In 2015, the newspaper closed its print edition out of fear of its offices being raided by Houthi insurgents.
After Houthi forces seized control of the Sana’a-based state news agency Saba (saba.ye) in January 2015, a rival online news agency, also called Saba, appeared in May 2015 at sabanew.net. The former now publishes pro-Houthi information whereas the latter, using an identical layout, supports President Hadi and the Saudi-led intervention.
The pre-2011 Yemeni government regularly blocked opposition websites and used the state monopoly over internet service providers to filter search results and regulate content. Nevertheless, the internet allowed for a more open and independent media environment. Al-Tagheer, established in Aden in 2004, was considered Yemen’s first independent news website. It was founded by prominent Yemeni journalist Arafat Medabish and hosted a diverse array of writers and contributors.
In the increasingly partisan media landscape, online news publications continue to be routinely shut down or blocked by the dominant groups in certain areas. Mareb Press, currently blocked in Houthi control, is one of the most popular online publications in Yemen. It has developed a reputation for relatively independent reporting and was previously blocked several times, particularly in 2011, by President Saleh’s government. Houthi forces have also reportedly prohibited access to al-Masdar News, another popular online publication, and the Islah-affiliated al-Sahwa.net.
The Yemen Times now operates exclusively as an online publication after closing its offices in Sana’a, fearing a Houthi attack. Another English-language newspaper, the Yemen Post, used to publish weekly from Sana’a but now exists as a Twitter-based news agency. In a post on its website dated 1 May 2016, the Yemen Post stated that ‘technical issues’ resulted from the ongoing conflict had forced it to migrate to Twitter.
Yemen’s low internet penetration and high illiteracy rate mean that social media is inaccessible to many in the country. This situation has been compounded by the ongoing conflict that has damaged the already fragile communication infrastructure. Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform. However, it is estimated that only 1.5 million of the country’s 24.5 million residents are active users, while only 128,000 Yemenis have Twitter accounts. YouTube is regularly employed by partisan Yemeni media outlets and terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), championing so-called military victories or decrying atrocities allegedly committed by opposing factions.