Dirty Tricks in Yemen’s Media War
Activists in southern Yemen allege that the Yemeni government is taking the western media for a ride.
Aden Press charged that Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s translator, who works as a reporter for one of the major wire services, is infusing his reporting with pro-government bias and sometimes outright lies. Planting government operatives in western media outlets is only one tactic the Yemeni government uses to spin the news in its favor.
Yemen is among the world’s worst press violators, ranked 167 of 175 countries surveyed by Reporters without Borders. The Yemeni regime tries to cover up Southern unrest, crime, corruption and the northern war and these topics are most likely to draw government retribution against reporters.
National Security operatives carry out most of the physical attacks on journalists including kidnappings and assaults, a study by Women Journalists with Chains found.
Politicized Courts Attack Journalists
The judiciary is another instrument of media repression. Journalists in prison for their writing include Salah Alsagalde, Fuad Rashid, and Ahmed Alzubairi. Al Ayyam newspaper was assaulted and shuttered in May 2009, after 46 years in print. Its editors were arrested in January 2010. Amnesty International repeatedly sounded the alarm that the men are at risk of torture.
Anissa ‘Uthman, a journalist working for the weekly al-Wassat, was sentenced to jail because of articles she wrote criticizing the arrest and imprisonment of human rights activists. The editor of al Wasat was fined and both were prohibited from writing by the court.
In 2009, Yemen created a Special Press Court dedicated to prosecute journalists. At a symposium, leading civil rights activist, attorney Mohammed Allaow said the court’s establishment violates guarantees provided under the Yemeni constitution. Many Yemeni legal scholars agree. Allaow was charged this week by the Special Press Court with “insulting the judiciary.”
Editor Mohammed al Maqaleh was kidnapped in September after reporting on a government air strike that killed 87 civilians. The government denied he was in custody until this month. Al Maqaleh described five months of torture to his first visitor, a union representative, in February. His family appealed for his release this week, saying that prison officials are denying al Maqaleh access to medicine. He was charged with supporting the northern rebels by publishing war news.
Roadblocks to Truth
Administrative decrees also suppress Yemen’s independent media. The state operates most of Yemen’s printing presses and regularly denies publishers permission to print. Magazines which carry unfavorable coverage- or even an unflattering photo of President Saleh- have been seized at the border. The Ministry of Information also denies licenses to independent journalists for a new newspapers. Private ownership of the broadcast media is prohibited.
Another tactic of deception is the cloning of newspapers, whereby a look alike newspaper with pro-government content is published in an effort to confuse the Yemeni citizenry. In 2007, three papers were operating under the name al Shoura, bearing similar logos and layouts. Defamation is a common tactic to undermine journalists’ credibility. Government sponsored yellow tabloids also defame journalists as hired operatives, bad Muslims, drunks, homosexuals and disloyal citizens. Editorial cartoons portray them as animals.
The internet in Yemen is heavily censored. While al Qaeda doesn’t have difficulty publishing its propaganda, dozens of political websites, including those of mainstream opposition parties, are blocked in Yemen. Al Masdar Online was blocked just 24 hours after the launch of a new website. It was the third time since the site was launched in May 2009. A manager at YemenNet, Yemen’s only internet provider, admitted security officials ordered the site blocked.
The hacking and destruction of websites is another means of preventing the free flow of information. News Yemen reported in December that its website was taken offline and the site’s archives destroyed by a hacker whose IP traced back to the Yemeni Ministry of Information. Beyond hacker attacks, Reporters without Borders also noted the orchestrated posting of comments on popular websites. Yemen also raised the rates for internet service while requiring internet cafes to take identifying information from patrons.
Yemen Portal, a news aggregator, provides a proxy service to bypass the censorship. The site has tens of thousands of page views monthly in Yemen. The site’s founder, Walid al Saqqaf, won the 2010 Democracy Prize from the University of Orebro for his work.