Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A journalist or an activist?


To undermine female reporters' value, they are questioned if they are activists & not journalists. Whereas, that's never the case for male reporters. I wrote this for Daraj.com, awhile ago {In Arabic}.

Yemen War in the US Media: Khashoggi, the Tipping Point






I wrote this piece for TruthDig.com back in November last year during my journalism fellowship (Sep-Nov 2018) at the United Nations office in New York. In the wake of the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, I was fascinated by the remarkably extensive media coverage on Yemen in the U.S. Being in the U.S. during that time really helped me understand the role of the U.S. media, Think Tanks & human rights organizations have played in the course of Yemen war. Most importantly, I realized how the murder of Khashoggi has become a tipping point. The following is a longer version of my initial report for TruthDig.com published last month. Here I enclose new paragraphs that were left out of the TruthDig's version due to a words number limit there.



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New York, U.S. - The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has ironically put the spotlight on the suffering of millions of Yemenis through a four year bloody and destructive war. In particular, Saudi and Emirati atrocities in Yemen have been under greater scrutiny, in the media and in U.S. think tank scholarship - given Khashoggi’s tie with the Washington Post and the U.S. media. The murder has been placed in the overall context of MBS excesses in the Middle East.


Media attention played a significant role in the rebuke the U.S. Senate recently delivered to President Trump, whose policy is to stand by the Saudis. The Senate passed a resolution Dec. 13 to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen and also blamed Salman, the Saudi crown prince, for the killing of Khashoggi.


The Senate resolution isn’t expected to pass in the House, but the vote was still welcome news to many in Yemen. “This is an overdue vote,” says Sarah Ahmed, a humanitarian worker in the capital city of Sana’a. “It’s been absolutely cruel for President Trump’s administration to assist a military operation, despite all evidence of the humanitarian catastrophe and war crimes committed in Yemen.”


Following mounting media pressure, top Trump administration officials also called for a cease-fire in the conflict, and Yemen peace talks commenced in Sweden. The talks addressed humanitarian concerns, and some steps such as a prisoner exchange were agreed upon, but the parties failed to reach accord on economic and political issues. Another round of peace talks is scheduled for the end of next month.


KHASHOGGI, THE TIPPING POINT


The war in Yemen has created what the U.N. secretary-general called the "worst humanitarian crisis" in the world now. The conflict began in 2015 as a civil war between the incoming Yemeni government and the Houthi militia group. Saudi Arabia intervened with deadly airstrikes, leading an international coalition into the battle. According to a recent report, the violence killed an estimated 60,000 Yemenis in the last two years. An additional 85,000 may have starved to death, and millions more could face that fate.

During the Obama and Trump administrations, the U.S. has supported the Saudi-led coalition, providing intelligence assistance, selling billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and, until last month, refuelling Saudi aircraft during bombing raids. Reports by groups such as Human Rights Watch suggest that if war crimes are committed using these U.S.-supplied weapons—and if the Trump administration doesn’t investigate that issue—the U.S. risks complicity in the crimes. The United Kingdom also has been a key supporter of the Saudi-led coalition and has assisted it with sizable arms sales.


Yet before the Khashoggi killing, the media in the U.S. published only limited coverage of the conflict. “I remember in the very beginning the press used to occasionally cover it and rarely mention the U.S. role,” says Alex Emmons, an Intercept reporter who covers Yemen on Capitol Hill. “I actually used to think every time a terrible Saudi-led airstrike attack would happen that this attack would definitely get huge attention and wouldn’t be swept under the rug, but eventually I would get disappointed and things would tend to be overlooked.”

Critics pinpointed some U.S. media outlets for inadequate reporting on the conflict. MSNBC didn't mention the U.S. role in Yemen once during the course of a year, and “60 Minutes” aired a 13-minute segment on the human cost and devastation of the war but failed to mention U.S. support of Saudi Arabia.


As the war raged on, a number of American reporters have fallen into an egotistical pitfall. After managing to have a rare access to Yemen and producing critical reporting from the ground, they turned the spotlight on themselves thus becoming the story instead of the reporters of it - this boosted their fame but did nothing for the plight of Yemenis.


Things changed after Khashoggi’s murder, with The New York Times taking the lead. The Times stepped up its coverage of the Yemen conflict, dedicating prominent space on its front page for the first time since the war began and featuring a photo of a skeletal Yemeni girl who later died of starvation.


In past years, Saudi restrictions had added to the dearth of international media coverage—for example, Saudi Arabia closed the Sana’a airport and refused entry to journalists.


“(Being) denied access by the Saudi-led coalition to Yemen has always been a problem for me and other journalists in the U.S., but the murder of Khashoggi has made everybody more skeptical of Saudi Arabia and more interested in scrutinizing Saudi Arabia’s actions,” said award-winning New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof when this reporter interviewed him at the U.N. “The media’s interest in Yemen (also) stems from the U.N. warnings about losing the fight against famine in Yemen. The Times’ photos were clear and devastating proof.”

In recent months, The Washington Post has produced extensive coverage of Khashoggi’s murder and of atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Following Khashoggi’s death, the Post also published a controversial op-ed written by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthi militia’s supreme revolutionary committee. In the op-ed, Houthi condemned Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen and the Khashoggi murder.

Critics then condemned the Post for providing space to someone who himself has committed war crimes. “Mohammed Ali al-Houthi ‘met the designation criteria’ to be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council,” wrote Gregory Johnsen, former member of a U.N. panel of experts on Yemen. “In other words, he is someone who has committed documented violations and crimes.”


Al-Houthi also has been responsible for the imprisonment of Yemeni journalists, another critical factor that has limited coverage of the conflict. The Houthis’ war on media groups began when the militia leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi, cousin of Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, said in 2016 that “the media workers are more dangerous to our country (Yemen) than the nationalist and warring mercenaries.”


Dozens of Yemeni journalists have been detained in Houthi-run prisons, but international agencies often do not recognize them as captives because the Houthis are a rebel group and not a government. “If the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.


Karen Attiah, the global opinions editor at The Washington Post, didn’t respond to an email inquiring about the reasons for publishing Al-Houthi’s op-ed. However, she said in a tweet that “We have given space to … all sides of many of these debates roiling the region. And yes, including the abusive ones.”


Other observers agree that all voices in the Yemen conflict should be heard. “Media is supposed to cover what is, not what ought to be,” says Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. diplomat to Yemen. “The Washington Post owes its readers the facts about the actors on the ground in any conflict—what they want, what their strategies are, etc.”

However, media outlets “should be careful not to overdo it, thereby turning their coverage into a platform for any combatant’s propaganda,” Khoury says. “In that vein, Saudi Arabia and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] buy influence via pages in major papers and grants to think tanks. The Houthis don’t have as much cash to throw around.”


YEMEN AND THE U.S. THINK TANKS

Though the number of Gulf-funded Think Tanks in Washington is uncertain, it is clear the Gulf money funds several of the major ones among the 400 Think Tanks institutions in DC, but of the leading organizations like Middle East Institute, Arab Gulf states institute, The Arab Center, Gulf International Forum, Brookings, and others have received full or partial funding from Gulf countries.


The Middle East Institute was given about $20 million from UAE over 2016-2017. The Arabian Foundation was even established by Saudi Arabia just in the course of the war in Yemen and it has been heavily focused on the Yemen war. In the wake of Jamal’s murder, however, both Brookings and the MEI have terminated grants they received from Saudi Arabia, though not from the UAE.


“For many years, in D.C.’s think tank world, there has been a general unwillingness to come down (as) hard on Saudi Arabia as they do on other countries,” Emmons says. “That’s probably because so many think tank organizations receive generous donations from Saudi Arabia.”


These think tanks recruit scholars and analysts (often people who formerly worked in influential political positions) who produce analysis and policy papers which often reflect not only an institutional bias but also favour the perspective of their donors. These same analysts also appear on U.S. cable news as expert-commentators. In light of the lack of access for journalists to Yemen, these commentators serve as a replacement and a news source.


US TV networks find these experts’ viewpoint as authoritative and regularly invite them to appear on their shows. Many of these networks, however, fail to mention the affiliation of these commentators’ respective Think Tanks and who do the experts represent.


Whether with their op-eds, TV interviews, or panel discussion events, these think tanks have played a role in shaping public perceptions. Through one investigative report after another, it’s been shown how both United Arab of Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s perspectives have dominated the U.S. media and policymaking community through buying influence.


YEMEN AND NGOS


Yet the influence is often challenged by both U.S. and international Human Rights advocacy groups. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, NGOs have played a critical role in acting as both advocates and reporters whose reports and media interviews shown in the U.S. media tend to present more compelling content than think-tankers.


For the small independent and non-profit advocacy group, Yemen Peace Project, the role of NGOs’ is a double-edged sword, “NGOs’ role could be helpful since we have more access to Yemen than journalists do, and we could bring out more information out of political events than think-tankers do,” says Will Picard, YPP’s founding and executive director since 2010, “nonetheless, we are sometimes accused of not having objectivity.”


Picard was referring to an incident in 2017 in which the Yemeni Embassy in the U.S. accused YPP of hosting an event that had “a political agenda tied to the Houthi rebels.” YPP defended its neutrality, saying it had documented abuses by both sides in the conflict. Foreign Policy magazine supported the nonprofit, calling the embassy accusation an “unusual step betraying Sanaa’s acute sensitivity to criticism.”

In the end, instead of undermining YPP’s credibility, the attack provided free publicity to the organization—something the small group wouldn’t have been able to afford on its own.

Oxfam America’s experience has been different. The organization believes that their work has been well-received. Nonetheless, Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead, laments the selectiveness of the U.S. media. “Unfortunately there’s a disproportionate amount of interest in US-Saudi relations compared to the reality of widespread hunger, disease and violence confronting millions of Yemenis,” says Paul.


It’s not only the US-Saudi relations that did not receive enough media coverage in the past, but also a variety of different issues in Yemen. This is echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Yemen researcher, Kristine Beckerle, saying “When you look at the media coverage on Yemen, a lot of it, and fairly so is on the humanitarian crisis & Saudi-led co airstrikes, and both these issues absolutely need to be covered but things that get a lot less attention are things like UAE detention, Houthi abuses, complicated political maps like in Taiz.” This impacts not only the public’s understanding of Yemen but also the policies on the crisis, as the range of issues in Yemen are not being fully understood or taken into consideration.



In the wake of the Khashoggi murder, U.S. media coverage of Yemen has gone from limited to extensive. The focus has not turned to holding the states with power on the ground accountable for the human suffering in Yemen. “The coverage makes it more costly to bomb or starve civilians, and it also embarrasses this government like the US and UK, that are implicated so it puts pressure on them to change policies. I think this is exactly what is going to happen here,” concludes Kristof.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Progress Toward Peace in Yemen, But Hard Work Remains

Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani and Houthi delegation's leader Mohammed Abdelsalam shake hands next to Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and UN chief Antonio Guterres. 

Days after finishing a fresh round of peace talks in Sweden earlier in December, UN Yemen Special Envoy Martin Griffiths remained optimistic, but also expressed caution saying “our collective achievements this week were indeed a significant step forward. But what is in front of us is a daunting task. As ever the hard work starts now.”


To be sure, there are plenty of daunting issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve a lasting peace in Yemen. These issues were not addressed in the talks in Sweden. While negotiators failed to reach agreement on the economic and political issues fueling the war in Yemen, the talks deliberately prioritized humanitarian issues, starting with the main access point for international aid: the port city of Hodeidah.


The Stockholm Agreement made progress in three areas: a total prisoner exchange deal, opening up Hodeidah to allow the passage of humanitarian assistance, and reaching an understanding on de-escalation of tensions in the southwestern city of Taiz. The most significant achievement though was putting the peace process, which had stagnated over the past two years, back on track, at least partially addressing the shortcomings of previous talks.

This round of talks, initially described as mere consultations so as not to raise expectations, cannot by itself bring peace to Yemen. The talks succeeded in focusing the international community on the need to respond to the worst famine the world has seen in a generation. Mark Lowcock, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief, said in October that 14 million people could be at risk of starvation in Yemen.

In 2015, the Houthis ousted Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and seized control of parts of the country. In March of that same year, Saudi Arabia, at the head of a coalition of Gulf allies, launched a bombing campaign to reinstate Hadi. The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since then, most by airstrikes.


The credit for the breakthrough in Sweden goes to representatives of the Yemeni government as well as the Houthi rebels. Ending the nearly four-year war will, of course, require significant political concessions from the main warring parties. Griffiths hopes that relieving the humanitarian crisis by opening up Hodeidah’s port will make much of those concessions easier as a second or even third step in the process.


It is still unclear whether the Stockholm Agreement will be honored. The follow through will test the seriousness of the warring parties to end the conflict. Meanwhile, there are four critical issues to ponder.

First, structural flaws in the peace talks have limited options for negotiations and disincentivized serious discussions on a roadmap for a sustainable and comprehensive peace. Direct talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia—the two have previously spoken directly—are crucial as Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Hadi might not have the final decision-making power to engage in talks because that say lies with the Houthis’ leader, Abdul Malik Al Houthi, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Additionally, the war in Yemen has fragmented the state and produced numerous non-state actors whose absence from peace talks stands as an impediment that Griffiths will at some point have to address. During the latest talks in Sweden, representatives from the secessionist Southern Movement showed up and protested their marginalization from the peace process.

Second, the specific factors that paved the way for these talks could change, thereby risking the durability and sustainability of the peace process. The recent international pressure on Saudi Arabia and the push for a reassessment of US-Saudi relations following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen pushed Riyadh to the negotiating table in a manner not seen previously. A growing number of countries have also started suspending, or are considering suspending, arms sales to Saudi Arabia—something the US Congress is now pushing, pending the fate of legislation proposed in the Senate and possibly a new initiative in the House of Representatives. Yesterday’s bystanders are today no longer silent.

More importantly, there is substantial international pressure to stop military action in and around Hodeidah because of the vital role the city and port play in staving off famine and death for millions of Yemenis. The international community understands that this port cannot cease functioning if a catastrophe is to be averted. But international interest must be sustained beyond securing this vital point of entry for international humanitarian aid. This is a pivotal moment in the spotlight for Yemen and negotiators should take full advantage of it before it disappears.

Third, the serious deterioration of Yemen’s economy was largely neglected during the talks in Sweden. The economic damage caused by the war has greatly contributed to the humanitarian crisis in the country. For instance, salaries for the country’s more than one million civil servants haven’t been paid for more than two years and the Central Bank of Yemen remains non-functioning. Yemenis understand that both Yemen’s warring parties reap material benefits from the war and without accountability for the economic exploitation of the war by militia leaders and government ministers alike, the war will continue and the humanitarian crisis will deepen.

Fourth, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) needs to be more active in the peace process. The next round of Yemen peace talks—scheduled to be held toward the end of January—are in desperate need for a push from the UNSC. The UNSC’s Resolution 2216 on Yemen must be revised as the situation in the country has significantly changed since that resolution was adopted in 2015. A new resolution supported by the five permanent members of the UNSC—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China—must call for a comprehensive ceasefire and adopt new language that takes into account the changed situation and the desires and goals of the main parties to the conflict.

Achieving a lasting peace in Yemen is an extremely complicated and difficult mission. The desired solution must take into account all the local, regional, and international factors and players. The talks in Sweden provided a good start, but the hard work has only just started.

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*This article was first published in the Atlantic Council, yesterday. 

Is Yemen a step closer to peace after the Sweden peace talks?


Yesterday, I was on TRT World TV co-discussing Yemen peace talks in Sweden.


Will the ceasefire in Yemen hold?


Earlier today, on Al Jazeera English, Inside Story, I co-discussed if the ceasefire in Yemen will hold & if Yemen peace talks in Sweden will lead to a lasting peace.