155 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 527,970 sq. km.
Head of state: Ali Abdallah Saleh, since 1990
The country’s media are chiefly under tight control by a government that is rarely open to criticism. Certain subjects are often censored.
Legislative elections scheduled for 27 April 2009 were postponed to allow the current legislature two further years to move the country towards a parliamentary system and thus to try to avoid a major political crisis.
The government keeps the media under its control. Censorship is frequently applied to subjects such as the presidency, state security and religion. But the most sensitive issue of all remains the rebellion in Saada, a region 200 km north of the capital Sanaa. This province has since 2004 been the theatre of fighting between Shiite rebels, al-Huthi and government forces that has left thousands of dead and displaced. The rebels are opposed to the government’s pro-American stance and its co-operation with the “war on terror” launched after the 11 September 2001 attacks. The government, for its part, accuses the rebels of seeking to re-establish an Islamic regime in the country. In the turmoil, the government has slapped a blackout on news, banning access to the area for journalists and publication of any news on the issue. Despite Qatar-sponsored negotiations that opened in 2007, the fighting continues and the area remains off limits to Yemeni journalists. The government considers those who defy the blackout to be “collaborating with the rebellion”.
Such was the case for Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani who was sentenced to six years in prison on 26 January 2009 for “collaboration with the rebellion in the north”, by a special criminal court created to try terrorism cases. The journalist, a former editor of the newspaper al-Shura and a contributor to independent media, was pardoned by President Ali Abdallah Saleh on 14 March 2009. This was the second time the journalist had been accorded a pardon, following a first one in September 2008 after his conviction in the lower court.
Against this background, most Yemeni journalists tend to resort to self-censorship to spare themselves legal proceedings and other problems with the government. Foreign journalists are only permitted to move around the country when accompanied by a guide appointed by the information ministry. Any who fail to observe this rule are expelled and their assistants imprisoned. A British freelance journalist and two Yemeni fixers were arrested in July 2008 while trying to get to Saada.
The current press law dates back to 1990 and a reform project under discussion for several years has been strongly criticised by journalists for being too repressive. It would ban any investigation harming the country’s “national security”, “national unity”, or “external relations” and provides for jail sentences of up to six years. Any abusive use of these vague and subjective notions could gag the Yemeni media more than before. However the new law would open the broadcast sector to private ownership which could give a boost to the Yemeni media landscape.