Yemen: a cacophony of voices

One of the less-discussed effects of political turmoil in Yemen over the last few years has been the proliferation of media. Despite widespread illiteracy, Yemen now has around 90 newspapers published weekly or more often and the state's monopoly on broadcasting has been broken; there are several privately-owned Yemeni TV channels (some of them based outside the country) plus a number of radio stations. As elsewhere, there has also been a proliferation of citizen journalism, including often well-made videos posted on YouTube.

The result is a wide diversity of opinions and a media scene which is a lot more open than in any of the neighbouring GCC countries, journalist Abubakr al-Shamahi said last night. While Gulf states still expect senior officials to be treated with deference, Yemeni newspapers had no qualms about calling the electricity minister "The Prince of Darkness" because of the frequent power cuts. 

This cacophony of voices has not come about because of any government commitment to freedom of expression but because the government, beset with a multitude of problems, is currently powerless to stop it. 

This has both positive and negative aspects. Needless to say, Yemeni media are often highly partisan. Though outspoken in their criticisms, they tend to breed animosity and often (though not always) lack professionalism, Shamahi said. Shamahi, who has been researching the media in Yemen, was giving the first in a series of MBI Al Jaber Lectures at the London Middle East Institute.

In many ways, this media free-for-all is reminiscent of the "Yemeni spring" in the early 1990s, following north-south unification, when 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. This was also the time when Yemen became the first country in the Arabian peninsula to hold competitive parliamentary elections under universal suffrage. Unfortunately, though, that did not lead to a new era of freedom and democracy. With hindsight, it was largely the result of a tussle for power between the northern president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his southern rival, Ali Salim al-Baid.

Once Saleh had re-established himself following the 1994 north-south war, conditions for the press gradually deteriorated, especially in the latter years of his rule when a media court was set up specially to try journalists who were considered to have overstepped the mark.

Broadcasting is especially important in Yemen because of illiteracy. The arrival of privately-owned TV channels has improved the quality of entertainment generally, and there have also been some well-produced documentaries, Shamahi said. One, on the problem of kidnapping in Yemen, made a particular impact.

Radio has also had a shake-up. Traditional Arabic and religious music used to be standard fare but Yemen FM (owned by Ahmad Ali Saleh, son of the former president) broadcasts modern Arabic music and songs in English. This is the station constantly heard in Yemeni taxis, Shamahi said.

Meanwhile, the current political vacuum has put journalists working for the government TV channels in a quandary. "State TV is now very confused about what it is supposed to be doing," Shamahi said. One recent example was a surprisingly fair report about a demonstration by Herak, the southern separatist movement – of a kind that would have been unimaginable in the past. 

Despite all that, working for the media in Yemen is neither easy nor safe. Shamahi noted that the BBC's office in Sana'a has an armoured door, plus a long rope inside to provide an escape route through the window in the event of an attack.

With the Houthi rebels now controlling large parts of the country, there are also new questions about the media's future. On arriving in Sana'a, Houthis attacked the state TV and a pro-Islah channel. Homes of some journalists have been searched and last month a journalist's family member was kidnapped.

Nevertheless, Shamahi doubts that anyone, including the Houthis, will be able to tame Yemen's media, even if they try. Saleh himself, despite his dictatorial ambitions, was never able to exert as much control as he would have liked and whoever ends up in charge of Yemen will probably be in a similar position. The intrinsic weakness of central government is not only a source of chaos but also, by default, helps to ensure some degree of liberty.

In addition to that, Yemen does not have the culture of deference towards leaders that is found in most of the Gulf states, and the afternoon qat sessions have long been a place for people to speak their mind.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 17 October 2014