In February 2001 Yemenis voted, for the first time since 1990, for representatives to local councils. A referendum was also held on the extension of the state president’s and members of parliament’s mandates. Although press freedom is guarantee by the constitution, in 2001 the authorities closed newspapers and arrested and prosecuted journalists.
Accusations of "libel" are regularly used by the courts to punish those who dare to address forbidden topics such as sex, relations with "brother" countries, Islam, or the functioning of the judiciary. Journalists are thus forced to practise self-censorship. In an editorial on 23 April 2001 Walid al-Saqqaf, managing editor of the weekly Yemen Times, criticised the attitude of security police towards the press: "It’s a pity to see that the mentality of the security forces has not changed over the years.
They still believe that they have the right to throttle the press". One positive sign during the year was in late June when seven journalists who had been in exile since the independence war in 1994, including Ahmed al Habshi, former editor-in-chief of the government weekly Al Wehda, returned to Yemen. Furthermore, the Internet, for which connection rates are still high, is not censored.
Hassan al Zaidi, journalist with Yemen Times, was arrested on 8 September 2001 in Mareb, in southern Yemen, by security forces who took him to the offices of the Mareb governor’s political security police. No official reason was given. The journalist said after his release on 23 September that he had been detained in difficult conditions.
Members of the security police told him that the cause of his arrest was a recent interview with a "terrorist", for which he was supposed to have asked permission. Hassan al Zaidi had already been jailed on 10 June 2001 for 16 days for interviewing a foreigner who had been taken hostage.
Pressure and obstruction
In mid-May 2001 members of the security police arrested a Yemen Times journalist while he was taking photos and gathering testimonies on the scene of an explosion. He was taken to the interior ministry where the minister ordered his release. All his equipment was confiscated.
On 24 April the first issue of a human rights monthly was banned by the information minister. Ministry officials justified this decision by claiming that the publication violated the press law, without giving any further details. After this ban the monthly, published by Mohammed Niji Alaw, member of the Institution of Human Rights Activists, was removed from news stands. It was to have been Yemen’s first regular publication on human rights. Yemen’s press law does not require organisations and political parties to obtain authorisation to publish.
Security forces ordered the closure of the weekly Al Ousbou on 26 April, after seizing 10,000 copies. A few hours later the prime minister quashed the decision but Talat al Alimi, distributor of the weekly and Wadaa al Midhagui, public relations manager, were detained for a few hours. The two men were questioned on the front-page article of the weekly which reported a future rise in petrol prices and taxes.
On 28 May the Sanaa appeal court confirmed the closure of the independent weekly Al-Choumou. Editor-in-chief Saif Al-Hadheri, who was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for "libel", appealed. On 30 January 2001 a Sanaa court had closed the publication for one month for libel against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Two complaints were lodged against Al-Choumou on 8 November 2000 by the information minister after publication in late October of articles considered to be an attack on the honour of Mr. Mubarak and Yemeni ministers. The weekly had accused the Egyptian president of "complicity with Israel and the United States regarding Arab and nationalist causes".
The opposition weekly Al Shoura was banned on 11 June for six months. One of the journalists, Abdel Jabbar Saad, was banned from practising journalism for one year for "libel". The case went back to May 1997 when the journalist and his late brother were sentenced to 24 lashes and a large fine for accusing an Islamist leader, Abdel Majid Zendani, of adultery.
his verdict was upheld in May 2000 by the high court. On 30 July Abdel Majid Zendani asked for the application of the sentence of flagellation. According to him, he had refrained from asking for application of the sentence until the journalist had started criticising him again.