Press war escalates

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 2 September 2005

The long-rumbling war between the Yemeni authorities and the press took a new turn on August 23 when Jamal Amer, editor of the independent weekly, al-Wasat, was abducted from his home.

Unidentified men using vehicles that had military number plates blindfolded him and took him to the mountains where they beat him and threatened to kill him if he continued writing about corruption.

‘I was taken to an unknown place outside the capital where they threatened to throw me from the top of a mountain,’ he said after his release. ‘The assailants hit me and fired shots to frighten me ... They warned me about slandering state officials and questioned me about writers and editors at the newspaper, and about our sources and funding."

Mr Amer’s abduction, which has been condemned by international human rights organisations, came less than a week after al-Wasat published the names of more than 50 children of senior government officials (including members of the president’s family) who had received scholarships to study in the US and Europe.

Although Yemenis have always complained vociferously about corruption and favouritism, they have usually talked about it in general terms. Publication of the scholarships list seems to be one example of a growing readiness to point the finger at specific people.

Al-Wasat has also been critical of the way the government handled fuel price rises in July and the ensuing riots which left at least 22 people dead. The increases were part of a package agreed with the International Monetary Fund to gradually remove state subsidies from basic goods, but disgruntled Yemenis focused their wrath on the affluence of senior officials, which they attributed to unofficial ‘state subsidies’ and kickbacks.

If Mr Amer’s abduction was meant to intimidate him, it seems to have had the opposite effect. He immediately told the press and his story appeared on the front pages of most Yemeni newspapers.

The day after the abduction, six members of the security forces reportedly raided the office of Ahmed al-Hajj, the Associated Press correspondent in Sana’a, confiscating his files and two computers. A day later they reportedly visited the office of Sami Ghalib, a journalist at al-Nidaa newspaper - again seizing files and computers.

Meanwhile, an attempt to try 34 supporters of the late Zaidi cleric, Hussein al-Houthi, was adjourned in disarray on August 15 when the defendants drowned out the court proceedings by loudly reciting the Qur’an and chanting "Death to America, Death to Israel".

The defendants, who include a woman, a 15-year-old and an army officer, are charged with belonging to an armed group and have been accused of launching grenade attacks in Sana’a and plotting to assassinate politicians.

Houthi - who was unconnected with al-Qaeda - led an armed insurrection in the far north of Yemen last year which resulted in hundreds of casualties and ended in his own death. His father, Badr el-Deen al-Houthi, led new round of clashes with security forces in March but later accepted an amnesty and agreed to stop fighting.