Journalists under fire

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 18 February 2005

Press freedom in Yemen has taken a serious turn for the worse following the jailing of newspaper editor Abd al-Karim al-Khaiwani and the criminal convictions of at least seven other journalists. News coverage and commentary has become noticeably more subdued, with papers increasingly attributing articles to news agencies or unidentified ‘staff reporters’.

Khaiwani was sentenced to a year in jail last September for incitement, ‘insulting’ President Ali Abdullah Salih, publishing ‘false news’, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination. His newspaper, the opposition weekly al-Shoura, was also suspended for six months.

His efforts to appeal have been hampered by court delays, and a hearing is now scheduled for March 1.

The charges against Khaiwani relate to a three-month conflict last summer in the far north of Yemen between security forces and supporters of Hussein al-Houthi, a rebel Zaidi cleric. Hundreds died in the clashes (reported by MEI at the time) and many, both inside and outside Yemen, were critical of the authorities’ handling of the situation.

Kaiwani wrote a series of opinion articles in which he described the military action against Houthi as a ‘crime’ and ‘state terrorism’. He also complained about the ‘ferocity’ of the security forces and the government’s failure to resolve the problem through dialogue.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the French-based Reporters sans Frontieres have both expressed concern about the media crackdown in Yemen.

The CPJ, which last week met the Yemeni ambassador in Washington, noted recent statements by President Salih in favour of democracy and human rights.

‘Those who embrace democratic values do not put journalists in prison for what they publish,’ it said. ‘If Yemeni officials are serious about democracy and human rights, they will free Abd al-Karim al-Khaiwani immediately, allow suspended papers back on newsstands, and cease their harassment of the media.’

Simultaneously, the government has also been trying to bring religious teaching under its control as part of an effort to stamp out Islamic militancy.

Among other moves, the authorities are preparing to close 4,000 religious schools allegedly run by ‘suspicious’’ organisations. An official quoted by Reuters said a study of the curricula taught in these schools showed they preached violence and ran the risk of destabilising society. ‘The curricula include books written by hardliners and extremists - including Hussein al-Houthi,’ he said.

The authorities have also banned 18 clerics from preaching as part of a plan to combat ‘wrong ideas’ by bringing more mosques under government control. According to a survey last year, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Guidance at present supervises only 6,000 or Yemen’s 72,000 mosques, though it has so far focused its efforts on controlling the most militant ones.