Corruption Triggers Media Repression in Yemen
The level of media repression may be a determining factor in whether Yemen avoids the threat of state failure. The Yemeni government suffers from entrenched corruption in nearly every office, a legacy of traditional patron/client relationships. Demands for transparency threaten the substantial patrimonial networks associated with access to the government budget.
More than 20% of state funds go to the administrative expenses of the Presidency and Parliament. A quarter of the Yemeni budget is allocated to the military as a line item. Another third of the budget is spent on diesel subsidies. Beyond the misappropriation of state funds, members of the administration also spin off criminal enterprises using advantages gained from their official positions.
In Yemen’s pervasively corrupt environment, investigative reporting is challenging the conditions that undermine efforts at wider economic and political reform. The Supreme National Authority for Combating Corruption credits journalists with uncovering the vast majority of cases in its docket. The NGO, “Journalists Against Corruption”, recently documented financial malfeasance in every governmental ministry. This investigative journalism is an agent of change on a social level as well. Published reporting on corruption has somewhat reduced the culture of fear. Corruption is now a topic more available for public discussion.
International efforts in working with the Yemeni government on the issue from the top down are augmented by the efforts of the journalists working from the bottom up. As the CPJ noted, “During the last three years, opposition newspapers have smashed political taboos by criticizing rampant government corruption…”
However, red lines exist for journalists wherever there is money and crime. One Yemeni journalist defines the taboo topics as the President, his family and close associates, oil revenues, oil smuggling, military budgets, corporate nepotism, and the naming of corrupt officials or their activities.
Journalists faced hundreds of attacks from 2005-2007. No investigations occurred. Of 301 instances of media repression, 96 were committed by the National Security Organization, including physical assaults, arbitrary imprisonment, property vandalism and theft, kidnapping and death threats. Ninety-five violations were perpetrated by the Ministry of Information including revoking licenses, prohibiting the printing or circulation of newspapers, fines and judicial proceeding. The Interior Ministry committed 54 violations, the PSO 45 and the military 11. Powerful non-state actors brought lawsuits against journalists and sometimes subjected them to assaults. As reports on corruption triggered retaliation, Yemeni journalists turned to technology and international rights groups to amplify their message.
The widespread targeting of journalists is a recent phenomenon. Following 1990’s unity, a multiplicity of outspoken private and party newspapers emerged. After the civil war, as power concentrated in the executive, Yemen’s media became politically polarized. Generally, the official media endorses the administration, and opposition media criticizes it. Opposition papers confronted the government, but discussion of the president, his family and certain other subjects was off limits. In 2003, there were few cases of government harassment of journalists.
The climate changed in 2004 when Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, editor of the opposition al-Shoura, wrote an article entitled, “A Country Facing the Power Inheritance.” He named the sons of high government and military officials as recipients of governmental contracts and positions. He was threatened but continued to cross the red lines. Other journalists also began to broach taboo topics.
Al-Khaiwani was sentenced to a year in jail for insulting the president. He refused an offer of release in exchange for apology. In a letter from Sana’a jail, al-Khaiwani explained his stand. “I believe in democracy, freedom, equality and rights and am willing to suffer for their sake,” he wrote. Yemenis have internalized democratic principles since 1990. By 2004, some journalists, including al-Khaiwani, had a sense of democratic entitlement denied. A nucleus of activist journalists emerged, confident of their ability to improve conditions in Yemen and encouraged by international rights groups’ interest in al-Khaiwani’s case.
In 2005, journalists increasingly uncovered and reported on corruption. They were seriously targeted by the government 53 times. Jamal Amer, editor of the independent Al-Wasat, was kidnapped and beaten after an article that outlined nepotism in awarding college scholarships. Amer’s ordeal gained international attention and galvanized Yemen’s non-governmental journalists.
Coverage of domestic unrest also triggered attacks on journalists. Authorities tried to prevent local and satellite journalists from covering the 2005 fuel riots, the Saada war, the later price demonstrations and southern protests. Newspapers that published news often faced retaliation.
Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani was pardoned in March 2005. He then published a report detailing the business holdings of top government and military officials. Weeks later, gunmen stormed Al-Shoura’s offices, took control and begin publishing the paper with a pro-regime line. Al-Khaiwani launched an internet version of al-Shoura.
About 50 new opinion and news websites emerged. Internet users, which numbered 100,000 in the year 2000, grew to 160,000 by 2006. The Yemen Times reported the popularity of Al-Shoura web site “skyrocketed due to (Al-Khaiwani’s) outspoken opinion articles and investigative reports unveiling corruption at very high levels in the regime….”
Internet filtering increased prior to the 2006 presidential election. Twenty-two verdicts were issued against the press and dozens more were pending. The court banned Al-Wahadi’s editor from journalism after he documented land seizures by members of the Republican Guard. He faced nine other trials. Facing 14 lawsuits, the editor of the YSP’s newspaper, Al-Thawry, sought and received political asylum in the UK.
During the presidential campaign, the opposition candidate was given substantial airtime on national broadcast channels, an important concession considering Yemen’s high illiteracy rate. Afterward, the ruling party resumed its monopoly of the airwaves.
The governmental media and high administration officials defamed journalists, calling them traitors, separatists and foreign agents. Three papers were suspended for publishing the Danish Mohammed cartoons, and their editors labeled apostates. However, Yemeni journalists gained a higher international profile when Jamal Amer won the CPJ’s Press Freedom Award and Nadia Al-Saqqaf, editor of the independent Yemen Times won the Gebran Tueni award from the World Association of Newspaper Editors.
By 2007, activist journalists became bolder and more numerous, seemingly willing to endure anything but self-censorship. Violations totaled 113 and included more physical assaults and fewer lawsuits. Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani was arrested on terrorism charges. Released on bail, he wrote about prison conditions. He was then kidnapped and beaten.
Despite the harsh media environment, official and independent media outlets have grown. In 2007, four new state-owned TV channels were launched as were several independent English language news websites.
Few newspaper licenses were granted until 2007 when Woman Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) lead 16 weeks of protests. Of 102 pending newspaper or magazine applications, 75 were submitted by independents. The Ministry of Information eventually granted 34 licenses, bringing the national total to about 200. The ministry rejected 68 applications including that of WJWC. Text message news alerts, previously banned by the Ministry, were licensed to a few news outlets.
Internet video sharing gained popularity among civil rights activists, southern protesters, northern rebels and everyday citizens. Authorities blocked some YouTube videos of southern demonstrations and about forty news and opinion websites. Thousands more websites are blocked automatically by Websense.
Most advocacy for freedom of expression comes from NGO’s. Several vibrant NGO’s are lead by journalists or have journalists as members. The Yemeni Journalist Syndicate (YJS), which represents Yemen’s 1363 registered journalists, is less assertive. The syndicate is funded by the government and headed by the editor of SABA, the state news agency. In 2008, hundreds of journalists protested, demanding admission to the YJS, which they charge was denied on political grounds.
In 2008, retaliatory targeting of journalists continues unabated. Topics that triggered recent attacks include the sexual exploitation of Yemeni children smuggled to Saudi Arabia, court corruption, and corruption in secondary school exams.
The regime increasingly tries to disguise its attacks on the media by using oblique methods of intimidation. Nonetheless, journalists are still regularly snatched from the street or beaten where they stand. In June, security forces seized 27 year old Loui Al-Maoyyad, editor of Yemen Hurr news website. His whereabouts are unknown. Colleagues created a website dedicated to his release.
The internet is one of the few independent national information systems. Authorities recently limited the business hours of Yemen’s nearly 900 internet cafes and began requiring patrons to show ID. Yemen Portal website, a news aggregator, publishes the full content of the other blocked news websites. The Portal developed a Firefox extension that circumvents the internet block on the site. The Portal’s page views rose from 2,300 on April 4, to 20,400 on April 9, after the plug-in was announced. Page views of Yemen Portal average about 25,000 a day. Hits in May totaled 1.7 million and page views 818,000.
Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani was sentenced to six years in jail. Twenty-seven international rights groups issued a joint appeal for his release. Al-Wasat’s license was suspended, but it was later re-instated after domestic and international protests.
In conclusion, reform in Yemen is an urgent national concern. The denial of newspaper licenses, internet access and privately owned broadcast media inhibits the formation of a national consensus, undermines progressives and short circuits accountability.
Yemen’s retaliatory targeting of journalists is brutal and systematic. Journalists understand that they can bring domestic and international pressure on the regime, but it requires that they endure the government’s attacks. The growth of media repression demonstrates that some officials are determined to retain the cash flows derived from corrupt practices and criminal enterprises. As these forces push back against demands for reform and transparency, it is a pragmatic imperative to lift the ceiling of journalistic freedom in Yemen.