Yemeni journalists are personally and legally harassed and threatened to discourage them from reporting on sensitive topics such as corruption, human rights violations and links with the United States in its fight against terrorism. Parliamentary elections in 2003 strengthened the position of the autocratic president, who has been in power since 1978.
Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, discreetly stepped up its security cooperation in 2003 with the United States, which has hundreds of US military advisers there training and equipping the coastguard, intelligence agents and a special anti-terrorist force. Most of the population does not much like the US government, but President Ali Abdallah Saleh uses the US presence to keep local tribes under control, hunt down Islamists and impress his opponents. The regime stressed its opposition to the war in Iraq at the beginning of the year and staged demonstrations against the "warlike aims" of the United States.
Parliamentary elections were held in April. The national constitution may be, as the government boasts, the most liberal in the Arab world, and the privately-owned media freer than elsewhere in the region, but the result is hardly in doubt when the regime is up for reelection.
Two newspapers campaigned against each other during the elections - Al-Mithaq, organ of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party, and Al-Sahwa, of the Islamist opposition Al-Islah party. Twenty-two political groups contested the elections which, not surprisingly in a country whose 20 million people have 60 million weapons, were marred by violence. The CPG won 75 per cent of the vote. Independent observers noted "significant irregularities," including intimidation by the security forces and vote-buying.
Mass arrests, torture and execution are still a feature of Yemeni life and parliamentary and institutional human rights guarantees have been curtailed since 2002. No journalist was imprisoned in 2003, even those from the hardline opposition papers, but press freedom remains fragile. No elected journalists’ representatives sit on the media regulatory bodies and the government retains its TV and radio monopoly.
Government pressure on the media did not let up during the elections and the regional tension created by the Iraq war. One good sign, though, was the cancelling by the appeals court of a lifetime professional ban imposed in 2000 on Jamal Amer, of the Nasserite opposition daily Al-Wahdawi, for an article considered insulting to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Amer’s lawyer said the court ruled the article was simply an opinion and not false news and that opinions were not proper reasons for a ban. The lawyer said the ruling restored his confidence in the judiciary, whose job was to protect people against arbitrary behaviour.
A journalist physically attacked
Fahmi Abdulwahed, of the government daily Al-Jumhuria, was chased and beaten on 19 July 2003 by armed members of the security forces. The national journalists’ union condemned the attack and demanded the interior ministry open an enquiry. Minister Rashad Al-Alemi said he would put a stop to such incidents.
Harassment and obstruction
In early January 2003, the information ministry accused local papers, the opposition press and stringers for foreign media of deliberately publishing inaccurate material about the murder a few days earlier of three American missionaries and the deputy leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party, Jarallah Omar. The ministry charged that they had sought to harm the country’s interests and stir up unrest and threatened strong legal action if they did not report events impartially.
The editor of the weekly paper Al-Shura, Abdel Rahman Ahmed Abdo, and two of his journalists, Ali El-Arary and Abdullah El-Sabry, went on trial on 21 January accused of writing articles in November 2002 that defamed the central elections board organising the April 2003 parliamentary elections by saying it was trying to fix them in favour of the government. The paper is the mouthpiece of the opposition Union of Popular Forces.
A court in Sanaa on 25 March gave four-month suspended prison sentences to three journalists from the Nasserite opposition weekly Al-Wahdawi - editor Ali al-Saqqaf, sub-editor Ahmed Said Nacer and journalist Abelaziz Ismail - after the Saudi Arabian embassy complained they had harmed Saudi-Yemeni relations by reprinting articles from the French daily Le Monde, the London-based paper Al-Quds Al-Arabi and the magazine Al-Mushahed al-Siyassi, reporting Saudi interference in Yemeni affairs. The paper was also reproached for publishing an interview with Egyptian commentator and writer Mohamed Heikal, in which he discussed the goals of the US invasion of Iraq. The paper said it would appeal against the conviction, which it said was politically motivated.
The Sanaa home of journalist Hassan Al-Zaidi, of the independent fortnightly Yemen Times, was surrounded by security forces for several days in early August. He told the paper in a telephone interview that he feared he would be arrested. The security forces said their operation was because he belonged to the Al-Zaidi tribe, which was the target of a wave of arrests at that time because it opposed the government.
The journalist said however it was because of articles he had written. Two of his brothers, one of them only 14, had been arrested in early August and Al-Zaidi charged they were being detained illegally and held hostage. The journalist has been arrested several times in recent years due to his articles in the paper but has never been prosecuted.