Internet Censorship in Yemen
The Internet has taken root in Yemen, functioning as it does everywhere, as a social network, as an electronic pamphleteer and as a purveyor of facts and ideas. The Yemeni government is intimidated by the public’s internet use and the resulting social and political progress. Consequently the Yemeni state dramatically increased internet censorship in the last months, as it is prone to do in times of crisis and negative publicity.
The regime is blocking both information and political content from the Yemeni web user. Yemen’s Internet Service Providers (ISP) denied access to Youtube videos of southern protests by defining the videos as pornography. At the time of this writing, the government is censoring at least 17 internet news and opinion sites. Most proxy services are inaccessible as well. The government, which monopolizes the broadcast media, also controls the country’s internet.
A standard WHOIS query to the blocked domains shows the output is filtered. The government ISP automatically denies internet requests from Yemeni users by using Websense and Antlabs to filter internet content. Websense enables the government to block websites by category and to define specific internet sites to block. Although the regime blocks news websites, fanatical Jihaddist websites remain available to the public. Internet censorship is a wall that serves the regime by isolating the Yemeni people from information and from each other. It also isolates Yemen from the world.
Yemen has long positioned itself as a democratizing, reforming regime. The verbiage of democracy underpins Yemen’s domestic and international legitimacy. Since Yemeni unity in 1990, citizens internalized and Yemenized democratic values and goals. In years past, the international community saw Yemen’s free press as a demonstrable indication of its commitment to democratization. However internet censorship, an embargo on Yemen’s new media, is occurring in conjunction with a broad, sustained governmental campaign against the traditional media. Journalists, editors, critics and oppositionists have been arrested, beaten, defamed, fined, threatened and kidnapped in increasing numbers. With the Yemen government waging war against information itself, international praise has turned to criticism.
Internet censorship in Yemen is a symptom of the regime’s inability to reconcile with its opponents. The regime habitually attempts to co-opt, crush or de-legitimize its opposition. Some have postulated the regime is engaging tribal behavior; however in a tribal construct, each tribe recognizes the right of other tribes to exist and justice is a mutually recognized goal. The ruling regime in Yemen has yet to accept the legitimacy of popular inclusion in the form of an authentic opposition competing for power. The repetitive wars in the north and ongoing civil unrest in the south arise from the ruling elite’s inability to accept former foes as partners in the political process, to say nothing of fostering new competitors for power. Internet censorship is method of excluding the public voice from the political system and thwarting meaningful transfer of power. Other methods of exclusion include takfirism and authoritarianism.
Yemen suffers from a phenomenon known as State Capture where large portions of the state are controlled by private interest groups. Resources of the state flow through patronage networks. Corruption is the defining characteristic of the administrative and state culture. As Professor Robert Burrowes wrote recently in the Yemen Times, “The degree of corruption, not just the fact of it, is key to an understanding of contemporary Yemen. Graft, bribery and other forms of thievery pervade the system at all levels of a steeply sided pyramid of patronage.” The state does not function for the public good but in the best interests of a small elite grouping.
To legitimize and empower competing groups, ideologies or methods would diminish the volume of cash flowing from governmental corruption and criminal activities. An informed Yemeni public would probably do the very thing that democratic people are supposed to do, hold their leaders accountable. Internet censorship allows the regime to hide the truth about Yemen from the Yemeni people and the world at large. In Yemen, as elsewhere, the companion of censorship is propaganda.
Internet censorship also works in favor of the regime by thwarting the development of a national identity. A free national media, by airing viewpoints and grievances, fosters cross cutting sympathies among social groups separated by distance, heritage or other affiliation. The regime, for which national unity is a red line, encourages the fragmentation of the Yemeni people by isolating them from each other, deploying internet censorship, propaganda and takfirism to achieve disunity.
Internet censorship also isolates the Yemeni people from the international community. It thwarts the transfer of information from Yemen to the world and from the world into Yemen. As a result the Yemeni economy suffers. The technological barrier between Yemen and the world is reminiscent of Yemen’s isolationism under the Imamate. Technological censorship is reinforced by the omnipresence of secret police in the internet cafes.
Social pressures denied the venue of civil expression have the tendency to explode and such an outcome is possible in Yemen where citizens are largely excluded from the political system. With internet censorship, they are denied their public voice. Traditional democratic processes yield little progress in altering the centralization of power. The 2006 elections in Yemen were unfair despite some improvement over prior years. Even peaceful protests are judicially and violently thwarted. Southern protesters have repeatedly encountered brutality by security forces, and 17 protesters have been killed since August. Hundreds have been wounded and arrested.
The Yemeni government has little domestic credibility. Public trust in government may be at an all time low. Internet censorship is one more source of increasing public frustration. To maintain stability, the Yemeni regime must cede power to the people, as is its stated goal. Tangible action is overdue, not another back room deal or bit of well orchestrated propaganda. One suggestion is opening the voter rolls to scrutiny and authentication.
Yemen’s donors must realize that Yemen’s economic development, counter-terror cooperation and governmental efficiency all hinge on the growth of Yemeni civil rights. Pluralism, the equal rights of each citizen before the law, is the key to averting the looming disaster in Yemen. Lastly, the Yemeni people must recognize their united power. Civil rights are never given, bestowed or awarded; rights are always taken. Many in Yemen have paid the price for freedom although Yemen is not yet free; these sacrifices cannot be in vain.
(Y44) March 6, 2008 Internet Censorship Yemen Times