Monday, May 4, 2015

World Press Freedom Day: Yemenis’ Words & Lives Under Fire

Picture by Malin Crona

Reporters without boarders' office in Sweden has awarded the imprisoned Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi the World Press Freedom award yesterday in Stockholm. I took part in a panel discussion part of the award ceremony along with a number of Swedish journalists. I'm posting here a text I prepared for the session that could shed light on parts of the press freedom condition in Yemen that's affected by the war's cruelty. 

World Press Freedom Day: Yemenis’ Words & Lives Under Fire

May 3, 2015 – There is so much going on in Yemen as I speak, and talking about the right to free press might be considered totally irrelevant. Yemen is at war and Yemenis are struggling to have the right to peace and life. The war has been waged almost six weeks ago after a coalition of 10 Arab countries headed by Saudi Arabia started operating a campaign of airstrikes against military targets in Yemen and simultaneously there is a fierce internal armed fights between several domestic factions. As the war is taking place, a great deal of citizens’ rights are violated and no doubt the right to free information and freedom of expression are violated as well. Actually, it’s hard to know where to start in analyzing the current condition of press freedom in the country in the light of the ongoing war. Nonetheless, here is my attempt.

2014, in particular has been a chaotic and harsh year for free press in Yemen and it continues to be so as the ongoing multi-facets conflicts are taking place in the country. Yemeni journalists are facing mounting dangers in practicing their job and facing grave threats to their own lives in the light of the ongoing violence and the authoritarian style of leadership shown by the new ruling power now at the hands of the Houthi’ militia group, who came to power, or still fighting to have full power, since their coup against president Hadi and his government carried in september last year. Generally speaking, before the coup, press in Yemen could be described as partisan press: journalism outlets usually worked along with political party lines. Today, the press is heavily used as a tool for propaganda and instigation of animosity and hatred). Having said that, Clearly, the war’s implications would also have a grave impact on how the press’ future would look like.

In the wider view over the current condition for media in Yemen: it is important to note that Following Yemen’s Uprising in 2011, there was a relatively boom in the field of media in the country: Despite widespread illiteracy, by last year, Yemen had around 90 newspapers published weekly or more often and the state's monopoly on broadcasting had been broken; there were several privately-owned Yemeni TV channels (some of them based outside the country) plus a number of radio stations. As elsewhere, there had also been a rapid increase in citizen journalism, including often well-made videos posted on YouTube(1). And investigative journalists –represented as watchdogs of democracy– they were doing courageous reporting where they were becoming as whistleblowers of corruption cases linked to powerful governmental institutions and exposing powerful governmental and non-governmental figures.

This progress was an expansion to the merits media managed to seize after the promising media booming that was reminiscent of north-south unification developments during the 1990s: when we witnessed a convergence of government-owned and officially-approved publications being joined together. (This was also at the time when Yemen became the first country in the Arabian peninsula to hold competitive parliamentary elections under universal suffrage.)(2) Something to note also, which has been a trouble, during that post-unification era, there was a growing wave of media outlets being dependent on a certain political party or political personality or group – there has been little of truly independent media because it couldn’t finance itself; someone had to back it.

Now going back to the harsh condition of media in Yemen starting since 2014, as I mentioned earlier, and how it’ll continue to be so as it got affected by the ongoing war: in my opinion there have been two major events that took place since September of last year that are gravely affecting press in Yemen:

1) On the 21st of September, last year, the coup d'état carried out by a group of militias, called Ansar Allah, headed by Abdelmalek al Houthi represented a major setback to the overall security and political stability, and any democratic process for that matter in the country. Citizen’s rights and freedom of information in particular have been awfully violated. Many journalists have been the targets of threats, physical attacks or abduction by Houthi rebels. Rebels have also stormed many media outlets. Most importantly, following the coup, The rebels have been controlling official buildings, including the state radio and TV.

2) The second major event is the current war that erupted on the 26th of March, causing damage and destruction; and the war’s casualties include killing dozens of civilians, among them children and also media workers. The impact of the violence has left so far, more than one thousand death toll, more than five thousands injuries, more than three hundred thousand of IDPs, and more than two hundred thousand of refugees, and 7.5 million people are affected. In addition, there has been destruction of civilians’ houses, cities’ infrastructure and buildings; which includes a number of media houses. In this particular period, since the start of the war, State-owned Yemen Net, the largest internet service provider in the country, has continued to block websites over their coverage of the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels. A number of local search news sites were blocked in late March, websites of the regional news networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were also blocked for sometime. Few newspapers stopped publishing due to the lack of services like electricity and fuel. Also the access to twitter via the web was blocked (people only managed to access twitter via mobile apps) for sometime.

So this is all happening while the rebels are now in control of the capital Sana’a and its government offices, including the ministry of communications and information.

The matter is, media is only the edge of the restrictions made by Al Houthis. The real problem is that dozens of political activists, political figures, civil society activists, NGOs members, have been restricted by al Houthis’ censorship and aggression. Just last week, there has been a list of names(3) made to summon some figures who are active in the media to be held for interrogation by al Houthis’ men. Basically, Houthis want to prevent the flow of information so their ideas only can dominate.

Nonetheless, I would like to highlight an interesting aspect of the role of social media in the course of this war. I have experienced living a war during Yemen’s civil war in 1994, I was nine at that time but I remember how it was difficult to have an access to information, news and reports about what was going on. Internet did not exist at that time and we depended heavily on international radio channels as local ones were shut down for some reason or another and still those international radio channels were poorly aired – it was difficult to be informed from reliable media outlets about what was going on.

But, the role of social media in this war has been extremely impressive. The war is indeed tweeted and facebooked and youtubed and even instagrammed. There is a significant rise of citizen journalism that goes back to during the Yemen’s Uprising in 2011. I myself was among those Yemenis who turned towards the cyberspace as an alternative means to report news or express ourselves, and communicate with the international media and audiences. Citizen journalism was indeed part of the re-making of media not only in Yemen but in most of the Arab Spring’s countries. We, Yemeni citizen journalists at the beginning of 2011, were a handful of people, but today, there is no specific statistics how many social media users are in Yemen but I assure you we are countless. That might be attributed to the increase in the internet usage among Yemen’s 26 population over the past four years: in 2011 it was estimated that only 3% had access but today it is estimated that more than 15% people are using the internet.

This has both negative and positive aspects; since the internet is like a double-edged sword that has benefit and liability. Besides that Social media plays a role among citizen journalists, it is also used to a great extent, in my opinion, to spread hatred, to dehumanize people and to mislead. That makes the necessity of verification and affirming the credibility of the content being spread a very important issue. This all makes truth at stake during the current turbulent time.

Essentially, free press today in Yemen suffers from a counter-revolution era following the uprising in 2011. It’s a historical time for Yemen and definitely that includes the press. The new leadership is increasingly trying to control as much as media as they can, and even to control the digitalized media on the web which is hard to do. It is not clear how all those developments are going to shape the press future. But, no doubt, It is a difficult period for media while paradoxically at the same time there so much more opportunity the digital media can offer to produce a lot more of free information, but you can't do that in the context of being politically active inside the country. I must stress as well, there are some independent media outlets and workers, some of them do courageous work, despite being drained-out and ill-financed, they are still challenging the new emerging authoritarian rule in Yemen. I think it is extremely important to support these voices in any way possible and amplify their messages. Supporting free press starts with supporting independent media workers.

Lastly, I urge you all to join Yemeni people calling for an end of the violence that is causing a humanitarian catastrophe. Besides the increasing number of war’s casualties, airports in Yemen have been destroyed, borders with Yemen have been shut and many countries have been refusing Yemenis’ visa entry and there is a severe shortage of food and fuel as the country is in a state of being sieged – Yemen has become a large prison - it’s a living catastrophe. We request your solidarity because silence is a war crime too.