By: Moneer Al-Omari for Yemen Post
Yemeni Journalists staged a sit-in a week ago, July 9, 2015, at the headquarters of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) in Sana’a in protest against the continuous violations of press freedoms and the illegal and unlawful acts by Houthi militia that targeted dozens of independent and opposing media outlets and journalists.
According to the Secretary General of the YJS Marwan Dammaj, eight journalists have been killed since the beginning of war in Yemen, 12 have been kidnapped and forcibly disappeared and over 300 journalists lost their jobs.
As Houthis advanced from Amran and took over Sana’a back in September 2014, they have harshly fought all sorts of freedoms. They have also committed serious violations of human rights and public freedoms. Freedom of speech was tightly restricted and political opponents were harshly targeted. However, the violations of human rights and freedom of expression and opinion by Houthi militia have markedly increased over the course of the last three months or so under a wide range of pretexts.
The violations ranged between kidnapping, detention and physical aggression, beatings, forced disappearance and this involved journalists working for local and international media outlets. Houthis have also stormed offices of independent media outlets, confiscated media devices including computers, cameras and other equipment.
Proliferation of Media Outlets
Employing the Arab Spring revolutions that swept over many countries across the Arab World including Yemen and caused the iron grip of the then totalitarian regimes to break, the years 2011 – 2014 saw the proliferation of media outlets, most specifically broadcast and online media.
Unlike broadcast media which has flourished recently, independent print media in Yemen used to flourish over the decades (1990 – 2010) and this was part of the formal democratic transformation the country saw following the country’s reunification in May 22, 1990.
Nevertheless, print media started to suffer over the last seven to eight years. This suffering started with the proliferation of online media and most recently because of the unfavorable conditions as well as the hostile political and economic environment in the country.
Although there exist no law to regulate the work of private and independent broadcast and online media, private and independent and even partisan TV stations have flourished and there are currently over 15 TV stations after broadcasting media was exclusively state-owned.
The number of online news websites has markedly increased since the advent of the second millennium and it has so far exceeded 400 and the number is still on the rise. This has been made possible by the relatively low entry and operation costs for starting and running a news website.
Likewise, the number of private, independent and partisan radio stations has significantly increased over the last two years. There are currently about 10 radio stations which broadcast at regional or national levels.
Cases of Violations for Press Freedom
Working as an independent journalist is a risky endeavor nowadays. Instigation against journalists who oppose Houthis or those who work in independent media outlets that are very critical of Houthis is mounting.
Houthis, over the last months and since their takeover of Sana’a, have kidnapped and detained dozens of journalists from all Yemeni media spectrum. A list of accusations are already invented by Houthis to justify their illegal and extrajudicial acts against journalists and activists. These accusations range from treason, supporting the military operations by Saudi-led coalition forces on Yemen, being spies or guiding the coalition forces spot the military places and other sites of Houthis and Ali Saleh forces.
Fearing the crazy reprisal and the extra-judicial acts by Houthi militia, dozens of journalists went into hiding, left the country or began to exercise self-censorship. Others took a submissive line in their reporting.
As they took over Sana’a, Houthis also kidnapped the press secretary of President Hadi Yahya Al-Arasi who was detained in an unknown location for two days. He was freed under outside pressure.
Two months ago, Houthi militia kidnapped the independent journalist Jalal Al-Shara’abi. Al-Shara’abi was detained in the Political Security Organization which is currently run by Houthis. There has been no comment from Houthis about why he was kidnapped.
Al-Shara’abi is not the only journalist currently detained by Houthis. There are other 10 journalists who have been kidnapped and forcibly disappeared. The whereabouts of some of these journalists are unknown.
As of September 21, 2014, Houthis took over public media outlets and they have appointed journalists who belong or are loyal to them. The opponents were fired and their salaries were not paid.
These public outlets, which are financed by tax payers, serve now the interests of Houthis alone, as indicated by many media experts. Those appointed by Houthis to run the state-owned media refused to publish or broadcast anything by the Yemeni president or the government and the authorities were therefore forced to have recourse to private and independent media outlets to publish whatever they would like to publish to inform Yemeni citizens.
Houthi militia, according to an independent journalist who preferred to remain anonymous, “do not tolerate with other people who are not supportive of their group, let alone journalists. Their opponents are always viewed to be enemies. They just want to hear their own voice alone and never want to hear an opposing voice”.
“The violations under Houthis have never ever been experienced by Yemeni journalists before, and it is the toughest time ever for us”, he added.
Two Yemeni journalists from Dhamar province and working for Yemen Shabab and Suhail satellite channels were declared dead about two months ago after being hit in an air attack by the Saudi-led coalition forces after being detained and placed as human shields by Houthis in military depots and areas declared as goals for the coalition forces.
Over the last few months, armed Houthi rebels have stormed the offices of several TV stations in the capital city of Sana’a and they have also stormed the offices of Hayat and Nas FM radio stations. They have also stormed the office of Annas Newspaper.
Freedom Foundation, a press freedom organization based in Yemen, reported that Al Jazeera’s bureau, Suhail TV channel, Yemen Shabab TV, Al Saeeda TV, Maeen TV, Yemeni Digital Media and Al Masdar daily were stormed by the Houthis. For a satellite channel like Suhail, this was the second time since September 21, 2015.
Houthi militia destroyed the equipment of several TV stations, ransacked their offices and equipment and blocked news websites. Nearly all websites save those that advocate for Houthis or are loyal to them were blocked. Among the blocked websites are Sahwa.net, Al Masdar online, Al Tagheer.net, Yemen Press, Sahafa.net, Mareb Press, Saada Press among hundred others.
They have also blocked all news crawlers and it is now very difficult to open these crawlers without having circumvention applications, a trick which most people in Yemen know nothing about.
One important violation was storming the opposing Al-Shomo’a Press Foundation on February 5, 2015, which is one of the biggest press organizations in Yemen. The foundation issues a number of daily and weekly newspapers.
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Al-Shomo’a Saif Al-Hadhery pointed out that Houthi rebels ransacked the equipment of his organization printing house, computers, and other equipment, adding that that have also looted a huge quantity of printing paper as well as money.
Al-Hadhery estimated the losses of his press organization to be one billion Yemeni Rials (about $4.6 million).
Similarly, Journalist and Media General Manager at Dhamar University Sam Al-Ghubari was kidnapped on February 9 and detained in the central prison for more than 60 days. Although they invented some accusations against him, many journalists believe he was prisoned over his writings that were very critical of Houthis and those working with them.
It is a tough time for most media outlets, especially the independent and opposition media. A large number of these media outlets find it extremely difficult to survive amidst the unprecedented and extreme political polarization on the one hand and the gruesome economic recession on the other.
Due to the growing recession and the economic instability, nearly all private and independent print media have incurred huge financial losses forcing them to cease printing their hard copies and to lay off their employees.
There are therefore no more private, independent or opposition newspapers in the market. The newspapers currently in circulation are those owned and run by Houthis and Saleh only and they are all funded by public money, especially when Houthis and Saleh still control all state financial institutions in Sana’a.
Lack of electricity and shortage of oil derivatives and the deteriorating internet services have compounded the problems of private and independent media.
For the same reasons, a good number of online media have suspended their online editions as well. Similarly, many private and independent satellite channels and radio stations have suspended their live programs, keeping their broadcasting activities to the minimum.