This month, the International Federation of Journalists along with the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate have launched a campaign to draw international attention to the arrest and detainment of four journalists in Yemen. Almost seven years ago, four journalists (Abdul Khaleq Amran, Akram Al-Walidi, Hareth Humaid, and Tawfiq Al-Mansouri) were arrested in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa on charges of “treason and spying for foreign states.” The International Federation of Journalists claims the journalists were arrested for reporting on human rights abuses committed by Houthi forces. They would later be sentenced to death by the Houthi Security Court, and they have been in detainment since their arrest in 2015. During their imprisonment, the journalists have suffered harsh conditions, physical and psychological torture, and deterioration of health. The story of the four journalists is part of a bigger picture of chaos, repression, and suffering in Yemen. Unlike many modern cases, freedom of the press in Yemen is being hampered by overt and traditionally authoritarian means.
Yemen has been in the midst of a war and humanitarian crisis since 2014. The main conflict is between the Iranian-linked Houthi rebel force and the Saudi-led coalition government. In 2014, Houthi forces captured much of the capital of Sanaa, and the incumbent government eventually fled to Saudi Arabia in 2015. Since then, other combatants and foreign parties have gotten involved or backed certain groups. The war has led to widespread hunger and disease, increased the poverty rate, displaced millions, and caused civilian deaths. All parties to the conflict have also been accused of “torture, arbitrary arrests, and forced disappearances.”
The list of journalists imprisoned, silenced, exiled, threatened, hurt, or killed in Yemen goes well beyond the four arrested in 2015. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 22 journalists have been killed in Yemen between 1992 and 2021, and 19 of these were between 2014 and 2021.
Some of these attacks have been targeted toward specific journalists. The office of the independent daily newspaper Akhbar al-Youm was set on fire and seven employees were abducted in March 2018 by Southern Transitional Council forces. In June 2020, journalist Nabil Hasan al-Quaety was killed in front of his home in Aden. Finally, in November 2021, one journalist was killed (Rasha Abdullah al-Harazi) and another seriously injured (Mahmoud al-Utmi) in a vehicle bomb in the temporary capital of Aden. No group has been identified as responsible for al-Quaety’s murder or the vehicle bomb.
Other attacks have been a result of being caught in the crossfire of conflict. Out of the 22 journalist deaths since 1992, 15 of these have been a result of crossfire. Just in February of this year, Mervan Yusuf was killed while covering clashes in north-western Yemen.
Journalism is being killed in less violent ways as well. Several radio stations were recently shuttered by Houthi forces, who were previously demanding payments and broadcasting of propaganda from these stations. Following the fire and abduction of employees, Akhbar al-Youm has been banned from distributing their content in certain areas and has faced financial problems.
First-hand accounts from journalists in Yemen tell stories of constant danger and fear. Journalist Bassam Saeed calls his job a “death career” and believes those in the field are walking targets. Saif al-Haderi, the president Akhbar al-Youm’s parent organization, believes that the price one could pay for working as a journalist is their life.
Several newsgroups and journalists have decided to leave Yemen, a choice they do not view as voluntary but rather the “only viable option.” Others have reconsidered their careers.
Although Yemen has never been a full-blown democracy, there have been moments of hope that the country was on a path towards democracy. Following the formation of modern Yemen in 1990, the country affirmed its “commitment to free elections under a multi-party system” and was perceived to be capable of having a “relatively free press.” Yemen was also the first country to have a peaceful transition of power during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
However, since the outbreak of the war in 2014, all sides have attempted to control media outlets and journalists. The Houthis have been accused of assaulting, detaining, threatening, and killing journalists. In 2016, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, said in a televised speech that “media workers are more dangerous to our country than the traitors and mercenaries of security forces.” They have also blocked certain news websites and online messaging and social media platforms. The coalition government has been accused of harassing and detaining journalists. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council has been accused of holding journalists, while local authorities have been accused of arresting and censoring journalists.
The country’s instability and lack of any powerful checks have opened the doors for all parties to attack journalists in overt and traditionally authoritarian ways. Journalists are killed, newsgroups are shut down, and trial proceedings are ignored in plain sight and under no guise of democracy.
The “slow death” of journalism in Yemen has serious implications for the country. Aside from hindering the country’s ability to democratize, journalism is important for exposing human rights violations in the country and bringing to light the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the country. It is also a source of information for Yemeni citizens and those hoping to help from abroad. Any semblance of peace in the country is going to require the press to serve as a strong check on governing bodies.
Conditions in the country do not seem to be improving, and the freedom of press and expression are also unlikely to get better. Furthermore, some believe that even a cessation of conflict is unlikely to ensure freedom for journalists, as they have come to be viewed as “partisan actors” and “enemies.”