The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 6

An e-book by Brian Whitaker exploring the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and its aftermath

6. Freedom of the press

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THE NEW political climate in Yemen after 1990 brought a huge growth in publishing activity. The dull government-owned and officially-approved publications which had existed before unification were suddenly joined by a welter of far more lively newspapers and magazines. News kiosks in Sana’a, too small to cope with the deluge of reading matter, spread out their stock along the pavements in piles weighted down with stones. The change was astonishing, not merely for the number of titles, which more than doubled, but for the diversity of views they reflected: always highly opinionated, often idiosyncratic, if sometimes short of supporting facts. A reader’s letter published in the Yemen Times typified the kind of comments which previously had been heard only in private:

I hope you are aware that most [road traffic] offenders are military and police personnel headed by our president, who drives through city centres in motorcades which break every traffic law. [1]

A news report on the killing of a senior Defence Ministry official was similarly outspoken. The Yemen Times claimed that the official stopped at a police checkpoint, identified himself, was “showered with gunfire” as he drove away and was then “taken alive to the Central Security Units headquarters, which is headed by … the president’s brother. The next day, he was declared dead.” [2] No action was taken against the paper for either of these items – something that would be have been inconceivable at the time in almost any other Arab state.

Remarkable though these developments were, the change was somewhat less dramatic than it appeared. No new daily papers were launched, and the existing four dailies all remained in government hands. The new papers were published weekly, fortnightly or in some cases irregularly, and – with the exception of al-Mala’ib, a sports newspaper printing 50,000 copies – their circulation was very small. Typically, the print order for the new weeklies was between 3,000 and 10,000 copies, though probably less than 75% of these were actually sold [3]. There is no evidence that this had an impact on sales of existing papers; circulation of the northern government daily, al-Thawra, is said to have increased after unification, presumably because it had found a new market in the south. 

Newspapers and periodicals in Yemen

(no.of titles)
(no.of titles)
Established before 1990 21 31 52
Est. 1990 or later 34 29 63
Resumed 1990 or later 2 0 2
Date unknown 0 6 6
TOTAL 57 66 123

Source: Ministry of Information, Sana'a

In general, the new papers did not attempt to provide the kind of routine (but officially approved) news reporting found in the dailies; instead they provided comment, alternative news and gossip of a kind that the daily papers would not wish to print. Apart from one or two newspapers devoted entirely to sport, the motivation behind them was political rather than commercial – in fact, hardly any of them were financially viable. Three of the new papers were government-owned, five were published directly by political parties, and others had party links or were published by individuals with political ambitions. The proprietor of the Yemen Times, for example, stood as an independent candidate in the 1993 elections.

The Press and Publications Law

THE LEGAL parameters of press freedom were set by the Press and Publications Law [4], signed by President Salih in December 1990. In several respects it was an unsatisfactory piece of legislation, combining liberal and conservative ideas in roughly equal measure, seeking to guarantee freedom of expression on the one hand, and to maintain reserve powers which could be used to restrain the press if necessary, on the other. This was perhaps the natural response of legislators who felt obliged to relinquish control and yet feared the consequences of doing so. The law began in suitably idealistic terms:

Freedom of knowledge, thought, the press, expression, communication and access to information are rights of the citizen which enable him/her to express his/her thoughts orally, in writing or in pictorial or in drawing form or by any other means of expression. These rights are guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution and by the provisions of this law. [5]

The law also contained some notably progressive provisions:

1. Access to official reports and information. “Authorities possessing such items shall make it possible for [journalists] to have cognisance and use of them”. This amounted to a “freedom of information” clause – a right granted in the United States but in few other countries at the time. [6]

2. Confidentiality of sources. Journalists were entitled to protect the identity of their sources. Again, this was a right not available in many countries, including Britain. [7]

3. Freedom of conscience. “A journalist has the right to refuse to prepare or to write press material which is in conflict with his/her beliefs.” [8]

4. Freedom of opinion. “A journalist may not be interrogated on opinions which he has expressed or published … provided what he/she published is not contrary to the law.” [9]

5. Independence. Journalists had the right “to cover any local, Arab or international event regardless of the nature of relations which link Yemen with the country in which that event occurs”. This was particularly important in a region where perceived national interests often restrict press coverage.[10]

In its eagerness to protect freedom of expression, in places the law displayed more idealism than practicality. For example, it appeared to make it difficult, if not impossible, for editors to dismiss journalists or prevent them from writing whatever they wanted, even in cases of incompetence [11]. Furthermore, editors were obliged to publish any articles submitted by the public, so long as they did not infringe the press law [12]. Writers whose articles had been refused publication could appeal to the Minister of Information [13].

The law also granted a right of reply and correction to “citizens, political parties, popular organisations, ministries, government authorities and companies” if published material concerned them or if they had “a legitimate interest” in an article (whether or not it cast aspersions against them directly) [14]. The reply had to be published in the same typeface, language and space and on the same page as the original article, and had to be published within three days of receipt (in the case of daily newspapers) or in the next issues (in the case of newspapers or magazines which were not published daily). Publishers were also obliged to correct any false information published as soon as they became aware of the truth – apparently whether or not anyone exercised the right of reply [15]. In addition, they were obliged to publish in their next issue “in the area reserved for important news items, any communiqué, statement or news item sent to them by a ministry or a government body which concerns the public good and corrects an item previously published in the newspaper” [16].

However, freedom of expression had its limits. Although the law acknowledged the legitimacy of “different outlooks”, these should be “within the context of Islamic creed, within the basic principles of the Constitution, and the goals of the Yemeni revolution and the aim of solidifying of national unity” [17]. Many of the rights granted by the law were also qualified by it. For example:

The press shall be independent and shall have full freedom to practise its vocation … No obstacles may be placed in the way of its activities except in accordance with the provisions of this law. [18]

The press shall be free to print what it pleases and to gather news and information from their sources. It shall be responsible before the law for what it prints. [19]

The law assures the protection of journalists and authors, and it provides the legal guarantees necessary for them to the practise their profession, to enjoy freedom of expression and immunity from interference so long as they do not contravene the provisions of this law. [20]

These general freedoms were accompanied by a long list of prohibitions: 

a) Anything which prejudices the Islamic faith and its lofty principles or belittles religions or humanitarian creeds, 

b) Any secret document or information which might jeopardise the supreme interests of the country or expose any of its security or defence secrets.

c) Anything which might cause tribal, sectarian, racial, regional or ancestral discrimination, or which might spread a spirit of dissent and division among the people or call on them to apostasise, 

d) Anything which leads to the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni revolution, prejudicial to national unity or distorting the image of the Yemeni, Arab or Islamic heritage.

e) Anything which undermines public moral or prejudices the dignity of individuals or the freedom of the individual by smears and defamation, 

f) Deliberations behind closed doors of the supreme bodies of the state,

g) Details of cases during investigation and trial which might prejudice the course of justice. During these stages, the criminal investigation departments, the police, the prosecution and the judiciary determine the items publication of which are forbidden, 

h) The intentional publication of false data or information with the aim of influencing the economic trends and situation or of spreading chaos and confusion in the country, 

i) Incitement to use violence or terrorism, 

j) Advertisements containing texts or pictures which are inconsistent with Islamic values and public ethics, to defame or libel individuals, attack the rights of others or mislead the public, 

k) Advertisements for pharmaceutical preparations, beauty aids or foodstuffs without the permission of the body concerned,

l) To criticise the person of the head of state, or to attribute to him declarations or pictures unless the declarations were made or the picture taken during a public speech. This does not necessarily apply to objective, constructive criticism. [21]

Most of these were unlikely to seriously hamper the exercise of press freedom, provided that freedom was tempered with a degree of social responsibility. Many countries have laws against sedition, incitement to racial hatred, disclosure of military secrets, articles that might prejudice a forthcoming trial, etc. The religious strictures – though unfamiliar in the West – were not unduly problematic in a largely unsecularised country where Islamic values were almost universally assumed. The main complaint was that the vagueness of the restrictions might leave them open to arbitrary interpretation; however, some imprecision was perhaps inevitable, given Yemen’s lack of experience of press freedom. 

The law’s most problematic restriction in terms of press freedom was its injunction against criticising the president (or, indeed, quoting him or photographing him except while making a public appearance). Similar rules, whether written or unspoken, applied throughout the Arab world at the time – partly because of the culture of deference but also because of the idea that a president or monarch was the embodiment of the nation: a person who, for reasons of patriotism, should not be criticised or insulted. This might be understandable in the case of a purely titular head of state but Ali Abdullah Salih, along with the other Arab presidents and kings, had an executive role, which meant that in a democracy he should be accountable to the press and public. The law did make some allowance for this by saying that the injunction against criticising the president did “not necessarily apply to objective, constructive criticism.” Since “objective” and “constructive” are not precise legal terms, nobody could be sure what that meant, though Muhammad Ahmad Jurhum, the Socialist information minister, appeared to interpret it fairly liberally: “You should not libel the president falsely, but you can criticise the political decisions.” [22] Despite the uncertainty as to how far criticism of the president might go, the idea that some forms of criticism might be permissible might be considered an improvement on the situation that prevailed in other Arab states.

It is also worth noting that the restrictions imposed on the press were balanced by restrictions on the government. For the first time in Yemen’s history, a law stated that the authorities could not to suppress publications through arbitrary action: 

No newspaper, magazine, publication or similar material shall be confiscated except in accordance with this law [23].

Viewed in that light, the law made a positive contribution towards limited, constitutional government. Alleged violations of the law had to be dealt with by the courts. In the words of the information minister: “Before [unification] I had the right to close newspapers. Now I can’t do that.” [24]

In keeping with the spirit of the time, the Press and Publications Law was clearly intended as a progressive measure and was certainly an improvement on the previous state of affairs. However, some elements of the law, as well as some imprecise drafting, made it capable of being used in repressive ways. It also reflected a more general problem in the Arab countries where nervous governments seek to regulate the press with what, by international standards, is hopelessly outdated legislation. In a free society, laws relating specifically to the press are unnecessary because there is no legal distinction between journalists and ordinary citizens in terms of their rights and obligations: the right to free expression and the right of access to information apply equally to everyone (whether connected with the press or not), as do any restrictions (defamation, incitement, etc). 

In practice, as with the law on political parties (described in Chapter 5), the more restrictive aspects of the Yemeni press law did not really come into play during the first four years after unification because of the paralysis in government. That began to change after the 1994 war and in recent years sections of the Yemeni press have suffered considerable harassment.

The press law also laid down a licensing system for journalists, publishers and printers - a familiar but unnecessary and insidious feature of press laws in most of the Arab world. In its mildest form, licensing creates superfluous bureaucracy and grants a right to publish only to those who meet certain pre-defined criteria. At its worst, licensing becomes a means to close down newspapers and printers, or to ban journalists from practising their profession, by withdrawing their licence [25].

Under the Yemeni law, accreditation as a journalist was open to suitably qualified and experienced Yemeni citizens aged over 21 who had not been convicted of “an offence against honour and integrity” [26]. In addition, newspaper editors had to be at least 25 years old, with not less than five years’ experience of journalism. They were also required to work full-time in the post and not be employed by a foreign state [27]. Foreign journalists working in Yemen were to be issued with an accreditation card, renewable annually [28]. Among other things, this granted them the right to travel throughout the country (which had not always been the case in the past), provided that the Ministry of Information was informed in advance [29]. However, the ministry had the right to cancel, withdraw, or refuse to renew the accreditation of foreign journalists without giving any reasons. This would normally result in loss of the right of residence in Yemen [30].

There was a similar licensing system for the owners of printing presses, who were required to provide information about the number and types of machines installed, and their location [31]. They also had to maintain a register, stamped by the Ministry of Culture, containing details of all material printed on the press, including the names of authors and the number of copies printed [32]. Licensing regulations also applied to “the profession of exporting, import, renting, sale, reproduction, showing or distribution of artistic compositions such as cinema films, video cassettes or any other form of artistic composition” [33].

The right to own and publish newspapers and magazines was guaranteed “for all citizens, for licensed political parties and for public companies, for popular organisations and for ministries and government corporations” [34]. To obtain a licence, publishers had to supply the Ministry of Information with basic details of the newspaper, including its title, frequency of publication and general subject matter, together with names of the publisher, editor and printer. A statement of assets and the name of its bank was also required. The law specified no grounds on which a properly submitted application could be refused. A licence would be considered lapsed under certain circumstances, for example if the publisher failed to notify the ministry of changes in the information supplied or if the paper failed to appear for a specified period [35]. Licences were not required for newspapers and magazines published by political parties, popular organisations and government bodies [36].

The possibility of foreign influence was a particular concern – hence the insistence of the law that journalists, editors, publishers and owners of printing presses should be Yemeni citizens. In the case of newspaper and magazine publishing companies all the shares (not merely the majority) must be held by Yemenis [37]. Newspapers and magazines were also forbidden from accepting loans or gifts from abroad or from non-Yemeni bodies [38]. To ensure compliance with the law, publishers were required to produce audited accounts and their financial records were to be available for inspection by officials from the Ministry of Information [39].

The law stipulated unusual rules for advertising. Newspapers had to fix their advertising rates in consultation with the pricing authorities and deposit a copy of their tariff with the Ministry of Information in order to guarantee adherence to it [40] The reasoning behind this is unclear. Price regulation in Yemen was often applied to basic commodities, for social reasons, but advertising could not be considered as belonging to that category. Possibly the aim was to protect the official newspapers from competition; alternatively it may have been to prevent newspapers receiving hidden subsidies (perhaps from abroad) through advertisements charged at inflated rates. These provisions implied a small and unsophisticated domestic advertising market, plus a lack of familiarity with the advertising business world-wide, and a certain nervousness about it. In the west, advertising is one business area where rules of the suq apply: rates fluctuate according to the supply of space and demand for it; advertisers haggle for prominent positions, discounts, etc, and for the bigger clients published rate cards are often nothing more than a starting point in the bargaining process.

Penalties for offences under the press law were as follows: 

1. Individuals could be fined up to 10,000 riyals or imprisoned for up to one year. In addition, they could be banned from any of the professions covered by the law for up to a year.

2. Offending material could be seized by court order.

3. Unlicensed newspapers, printing presses, publishing houses, etc, could be closed by court order.

4. Copies of newspapers or other printed material which violated the law could be seized by ministerial order. The matter would then be brought to court to decide whether seized material should be permanently confiscated. The law also allowed those affected by seizure to appeal through the courts and claim compensation.

5. There were no penalties for officials or others who failed to grant journalists their rights under the law, though presumably these could be enforced through the courts. [41]

The editor of a publication was to be held “fully responsible” for any breach of the law by a contributor “unless it can be proven that publication took place without his knowledge” [42]. The latter phrase introduced the principle of ignorance as a defence – an idea rejected in many countries for the sound reason that an editor’s duty is to ensure that he knows what is published in his name. A further clause made it illegal for newspaper publishers or their workers to appeal for donations to help pay fines, compensation, etc [43]. Presumably the intention was to ensure that papers suffered the full effect of any penalties that might be imposed under the law. In other countries, appeals of this kind have sometimes saved small publications from closure.

Thus the Press and Publications Law served a number of functions. It established the principle of a free press; it set limits to that freedom but also imposed limits on the government’s power to interfere; it sought to ensure fair play, through the right of reply, etc; and it sought to safeguard the press from foreign influence (especially important in Yemen because of Saudi attempts to meddle in its internal politics). The vagueness of some of the rules – on “constructive” criticism, for example – was sufficient to allow either liberal or restrictive interpretation, and that, ultimately, was a matter for the courts to decide.

During the first two years of unity, the information ministry drew up 10-12 cases against publishers. It lost two in court and dropped the others, ostensibly because of the time and expense involved. In some cases, however, the prosecutions were half-hearted from the beginning, suggesting – as one editor put it – that the government was “filing lawsuits to intimidate” [44]. In August 1992 the ministry reportedly threatened to close Sawt al-Ummal, 22 May and al-Mustaqbil (described by a western diplomat as one of the best papers in Yemen) for “not abiding by the formal policy of the unified state” [45]. The government’s most spectacular defeat in court was a case of bureaucratic incompetence involving an article in the English-language Yemen Times which had been translated into Arabic by the ministry. Because of a mistake in translation, the offending words appeared only in the ministry’s version and not in the original article. While the journalists were mostly left unmolested during the early 1990s, so too were those they exposed. According to Dr Nasir al-Mutairi, publisher of the weekly al-Siyasah (“Politics”), the usual response to exposés of corruption was not to sack the officials concerned but to transfer them to another job where, presumably, their corrupt activities continued.

The press law, like many other laws in Yemen, was never fully operative during the first four years of unity. The government often failed to take action against violations, even when there were prima facie grounds for doing so. One editor-publisher attributed this to the general ineffectiveness of the state machinery: “Its own inefficiency is the source of our freedom,” he said [46]. There were also reasons more closely connected with politics. After 1992, the rift within the ruling coalition made it increasingly difficult to take decisive action in any area of government; and the large number of party-owned publications could not easily be suppressed without coming into direct conflict with the parties themselves – which, in the run-up to the elections might have appeared unduly provocative.

Recognising the government’s difficulties, several papers regularly and deliberately tested the bounds of permissibility. The Yemen Times, for example, criticised the president’s custom of bribing people or, as the paper more delicately put it, “using public funds to win favours and supporters”. It continued:

“The President’s largesse is so widespread that he is often referred to as very generous … Our rulers give away routinely large bundles of government cash, big chunks of government land, government-paid-for cars, and government-paid-for ultra deluxe furniture.” In order to make its criticism “constructive”, the paper added that while the need to buy support was entirely understandable, it was perhaps not the best policy: “If you buy someone’s allegiance, remember there can always come into play a higher bidder for that same allegiance.” The publisher got away with it. He recalled shortly afterwards: “The president made it known to me that he was very upset. But I just sent a message back saying ‘So what?’ In the past that would have been a very serious thing – I would have had to leave the country.” [47] 

The Yemen Times was perhaps better protected than some of the Arabic-language newspapers. Because it was published in English, with a few pages in French, there was no real danger that anything it said would inflame the masses. Its readers, apart from a few educated Yemenis, were mainly foreign expatriates. It could therefore be allowed to criticise more openly than Arabic-language papers and at the same time could be held up as proof of the government’s tolerant attitude. During and after the 1994 war, however, it came under pressure – probably because the government felt it was becoming too influential among the diplomatic community.

Although the law granted journalists the right “to cover any local, Arab or international event regardless of the nature of relations which link Yemen with the country in which that event occurs” [48], this proved a sensitive area. In November 1991, the Presidential Council instructed the official newspapers not to respond to an anti-Yemen campaign in the Saudi press but was careful only to express its “hope” that other papers would “stop publishing any false or deceptive news which would harm the national interests” [49]. There were also some attempts to extend the rule about criticism of the Yemeni president to other Arab heads of state. The Ministry of Information attempted to stop one publication attacking Hosni Mubarak (the Egyptian president) and the Saudi government, and in August 1991, al-Thawra quoted Prime Minister Attas as saying the press should not criticise “friendly” states [50]. It seems likely that the pressure for this was coming from other Arab states which maintained more rigorous control over their newspapers. The usual Yemeni response was to urge editors not to publishing offending material in future. After one paper had criticised a foreign head of state, Information Minister Jurhum said: “I called the chief editor and asked him not to repeat this, that it is a matter of brotherly relations” [51]. In general, though, foreign policy was an area where the Yemeni press tended not to stray far from the government’s line. Caution was especially noticeable in relation to Yemen’s stance on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, even though some opposition figures and one or two of the editors believed Yemen’s interests would have been better served by adopting a different position [52]. That was in sharp contrast to coverage of Yemen’s political crisis of 1993-94, which was probably more fully discussed than any previous internal dispute in the Arab world.

On the whole, government restrictions were a less significant barrier to the development of a free press than other factors. The rapid growth in the number of publications was not matched by a proportional growth in the numbers of trained journalists. While there was no shortage of people able and willing to express their opinions or to make largely unchecked accusations, there were few published examples of well-researched investigations or documented scandals. According to Dr Mutairi of al-Siyasa, one of his greatest difficulties was finding enough journalists who knew how to write articles that were critical without taking undue risks [53]. 

Economic factors also placed the independent publishers at a disadvantage. The market price for newspapers was established by those titles existing before unification. This was commonly 3 riyals, with a few titles selling for 4, and others in the south for as little as 1 or 1½. Some of the existing papers were undoubtedly subsidised, and with generally larger circulations which produced economies of scale, they had a clear advantage over newcomers. In general, newcomers to the market were obliged to charge the prices readers expected rather than the prices they needed to cover their costs. The publisher of one short-lived paper claimed that normal sales revenue from the 20,000 copies circulated in Yemen covered only about a sixth of total costs, and with little prospect of substantial revenue from advertising, he was looking to overseas subscriptions, charged at a higher rate, to help meet the losses [54]. The only successful exception to this appeared to be the English-language Yemen Times, sold at 10 riyals, which was aimed at a more affluent (and largely foreign) market. Independent papers were also entitled to a subsidy from the Ministry of Information of 5,000 riyals a month ($350 at the official exchange rate), though some refused to accept it [55].

Usually, access to specialised newspaper presses was available only to the official newspapers. The new titles had to contract-out their printing to commercial printers using equipment that was relatively ill-suited to the task: each copy had to be individually folded and collated, and the paper used was generally heavier (and therefore more expensive) than newsprint. In two other respects, however, the new papers were more efficient than the old ones. They normally used desk-top publishing technology which is both labour-saving and comparatively cheap to buy. The modern technology often led to a more attractive product. Another compensation was that journalists on the new papers worked with more enthusiasm than those on the government-owned papers, who tended to keep civil service hours. As one senior journalist on the government-owned al-Thawra put it, “people go to the office for six hours a day and work a maximum of two or three.” [56] 

Finally, the new unofficial press, despite its achievement in widening the scope of debate and occasionally embarrassing the government, made a limited impact on the Yemeni public. Most newspaper readers continued to buy the government dailies which were little changed by the new climate of freedom, either in structure or content [57]. Suggestions that they should be privatised or turned into journalists’ co-operatives came to nothing. With an illiteracy rate estimated at 60%, the majority of Yemenis had no use for newspapers, either government-owned or independent, and relied on radio or television for their daily news. The 13 radio stations and two TV channels (Sana’a and Aden) were all state-owned and in effect controlled by the ruling parties. They had little scope for independent reporting: their news was supplied by five official agencies: al-Thawra, al-Jumhuriyya, 14 October, Saba News Agency and TV-Radio Co-ordination. Some information, such as statements by the president, the Presidential Council or the prime minister, had to be broadcast in full, without comment. “News” on the northern channel followed the usual Arab formula of reporting the president’s daily engagements. However, a bold decision to broadcast parliamentary debates unedited proved extremely popular. “Everyone watches parliament ... people are exposed to a lot of different opinions, all legitimised as discussion,” one western academic commented [58]. For the most part, though, radio and television programmes were extremely dull – with the result that many Yemenis listened to foreign radio broadcasts or, if they could afford it, invested in a satellite dish.

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009