Yemen: Journalists at Gunpoint: A report on the situation of journalists in Yemen on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day

03.05.21

Journalists in Yemen suffer a bitter reality and a real tragedy as a direct consequence of the lack of respect for freedom of expression, and fear of the press and journalists in particular, which has led to Yemen being considered an unsafe place to work.

The country has been plunged into war for six years. Democracy in Yemen and the signing and ratification of international agreements related to human rights have not curbed the series of violations against freedom of expression. Rather, freedom of the press continues to deteriorate.

Moreover, Yemeni journalists also face societal difficulties. As soon as he/she says that he/she is a journalist, he/she must fear the other person’s reaction, who will begin to blame the journalist for being the reason for what is happening because of critical reporting of the authorities’ corruption and performance. Even if he/she is a sports journalist, he/she will inevitably be the target of accusations and possibly security harassment, abusive practices, whether officially or arbitrarily by community members. In other words, civilians or military personnel can commit violations against journalists for no reason other than them doing field work, often without being held accountable.

Since the coup against the regime in Yemen led by "Ansar Allah" (the Houthis), the situation became more complicated for journalists due to the iron grip of the Houthi group in its dealings with the media, which amounted to forcing them to publish propaganda that incites war.

On the other side of Yemen, in the areas under the control of the legitimately elected government, the situation is no less complicated. There are some elements fighting within the ranks of the government who have already been involved in violations against journalists. In other words, Yemeni journalists are being targeted by everyone and have enemies who are sparing no effort to attack them in an attempt to force them to remain silent.

The various powers and groups in Yemen have realized the influence of journalists. Their fear of journalists runs so deep to such an extent that they are sentenced to death, or killed in assassinations that always end up being recorded as attacks by unknown perpetrators, or are subjected to acts of attempted murder. There is a long series of violations and denial of basic rights and humanitarian needs for living, since many workers in official media organizations became unpaid workers, after the legitimate government stopped the salaries of state employees - including those working in media institutions who work in areas controlled by the Houthis, who in turn evaded their obligations to pay employees' salaries, which forced many journalists to switch to other jobs and professions.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) sensed this tragic situation, and implemented a project through which it highlighted journalists' issues by producing short films presenting the stories of four journalists who had to shift to other professions for sources of income.  In this report, we convey a broader picture of the situation of journalists in Yemen which is being released on World Press Freedom Day.

One of the worst countries for journalists

Yemen ranks 169th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s World Press Freedom Index for 2021, as it is classified among the worst countries in terms of suppressing freedom of expression.

During the past year, the Media Freedom Center recorded 143 cases of violations of freedom of expression in Yemen against individuals and media institutions, in which the Houthis and the legitimate government were involved, in addition to 22 cases recorded at the hands of unknown perpetrators. Three journalists were killed in 2020. Badeel Al-Buraihi died as a result of a missile targeting the Houthi group at Al-Istikbal camp in Marib. Nabil Al-Quaiti was assassinated in front of his home in Aden. Adeeb Al-Janani died as a result of the missile strikes that targeted the Yemeni government after its arrival in Aden. The Sana'a government handed down death sentences for four journalists detained in its prisons for five years, they are Abdulkhaleq Ahmed Amran, Akram Saleh Al-Walidi, Al-Hareth Saleh Hamid and Tawfiq Mohammed Al-Mansouri. It also sentenced to death another seven whom it described as “fugitives from justice,” most notably Nadia Al-Sakkaf, a  former information minister in the Government of National Accord, against which the Ansar Allah group rebelled in September 2015.

This year, on 2 April 2021, journalist Hisham Al-Baqiri was killed while he was covering the military battles in the west. On 18 April 2021, employees of the Yemen Digital Media Company, which provides media services to television channels, were surprised when security personnel and representatives from the Specialized Criminal Court of First Instance in Sana'a arrived at the company’s headquarters with a judicial warrant that was neither dated nor did it have a name or a stamp. It accused the owner, Taha Al-Maamari, of being a fugitive from justice, in a perceived attempt to plunder the company, as the Court appointed at once a new manager for the company and security guards, without summoning the owner by any party for investigation, neither as an individual nor the company as a legal entity.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate announced 24 cases of violations against media freedoms during the first quarter of 2021, including seven cases of arrest, detention and prosecution, seven cases of trials and summons, six cases of bans on media coverage and visits and health care prevention, two cases of confiscation of journalists' possessions and property, in addition to one case of assault and one case of threatening. The Syndicate said: “The parties impose an iron grip on the reality of the press in Yemen, albeit in different proportions, and perhaps the most oppressive and arbitrary situation is in the areas controlled by the Houthi group, which banned journalistic work that is pluralist and contrary to its views and practiced a policy of intimidation towards journalists to the extent that they are unable to freely and safely work in the areas under their control.”

In addition, there are 12 journalists who remain kidnapped, 11 of them by the Houthi group, some of them for more than five years. They are: Wahid Al-Sufi, Nabil Al-Sadawi, Mohammed Abdo Al-Salahi, Mohammed Al-Junaid, Dr. Wadih Al-Sharjabi and Walid Al-Matari. Journalist Mohammed Qaid Al-Maqri has been kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in Hadramout since 12 October 2015 in mysterious and disturbing circumstances, and photojournalist Abdullah Bakir has been kidnapped by the government in Hadramout on 29 May 2020 and was released on 23 April 2021.

On 15 April 2021, the Houthi group released journalist Sultan Qatran, a year and a half after his arrest.

Covid-19 kills 11 Yemeni journalists

It is not just the war or insecurity that stands against journalists in Yemen, so does Covid-19, which has led to an increase in financial burdens in terms of having to buy sanitizers, masks, gloves and foods rich in vitamin C, which are new expenses that have been laid upon their already heavily burdened shoulders due to wage cuts. It has also affected their morale, especially as they are directly exposed to worrisome news and developments on the emerging Coronavirus.

Moreover, 11 journalists have died from Covid-19, most notably Ahmed Al-Hubaishi, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the October 14 Press Foundation, which is based in Aden, who died in Sana'a. The rest of those who died were in the cities of Aden and Hadramout, according to the Media Freedoms Observatory.

With regard to infections, there are six cases that were diagnosed with the virus, while many media workers experienced symptoms such as a loss of the sense of smell and taste and many felt shortness of breath, especially those who are in the northern regions, without undergoing any tests to find out whether or not they had contracted the Coronavirus.

Recommendations:

Many Yemeni journalists have little knowledge of international media institutions, so it would be good to create programs to acquaint Yemeni journalists with those that pay for written or visual journalistic work, or those that help journalists financially so that they can work again and create private media projects.

Women journalists suffer from inequality in the workplace, whether in terms of wages or the distribution of leadership positions. Therefore, we recommend that media organizations in Yemen allocate a quota for women in managerial positions, include women journalists among their editorial and field staff, and have equitable distribution of financial remuneration without discrimination based on gender.

The culture of adhering to personal safety for journalists, especially those covering field events, is lacking. Therefore, we recommend that media outlets train their correspondents and the crews accompanying them through training courses on security and personal safety for journalists, and provide personal safety equipment to all teams working in the field. Formal legal contracts must be made with all journalists and technicians that outline the work period, salary, annual leave and end-of-service payment, as well as committing to providing health and risk insurance, and to periodically grant those who work in conflict zones a risk allowance.

A journalist is not an enemy, but just a person who works in the field of conveying and sharing information and an eyewitness to events, so should not be treated as a military target. It is important that journalists be given the necessary protection and not be held responsible for events they cover. Everyone, including security personnel, should provide the necessary protection for journalists, support them and cooperate with them, especially when it comes to information, by implementing the Right to Information Act.

Cutting the salaries of those who work in media institutions located within the Houthi government’s area of control has increased the suffering of journalists and forced them to look for other work and quit their media work. Therefore, we recommend that the Yemeni legitimate government and the National Rescue Government quickly disburse the financial dues owed to journalists, continue paying their salaries and not stop them under any circumstances.

This article was written by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) in cooperation with Electronic Organization for Humanitarian Media (EOHM), a Yemeni Organization.