Yemen’s Media Landscape: An Overview
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 began publishing 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 14 October, in addition to 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, and 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, yet 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 in accordance with the country’s penal code, although 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 being 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 that 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 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 per cent of Yemeni respondents watched television on a daily basis. Moreover, the survey concluded that only 14 per cent 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, along with two overseas channels specifically geared towards Yemeni audiences, the UK-based Suhail TV and the Egypt-based al-Saidah.
Overseas Yemeni-focused channels
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 Republic of Yemen Radio. State-owned stations include the Sana’a and Aden national stations, as well as the Sana’a-based al-Shabab Radio that broadcasts four hours of content directed at young listeners. 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 levels of conflict 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 the creation of radio stations, 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 per cent by UNICEF in 2012) and the fact 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 is reflective of the ongoing conflict in the country, with many newspapers’ offices being closed down or representing the views of the dominant force in the region.
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, as well as terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), championing so-called military victories or decrying atrocities allegedly committed by opposing factions.
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 hosts a diverse array of writers and contributors.
In the current, 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 areas of 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’ as a result of the ongoing conflict had forced it to migrate to Twitter.
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