The release of journalists from Houthi prisons in April has given the government the opportunity to vaunt its commitment to human rights, specifically the cause of press freedom. Four of the prisoners – Tawfiq al-Mansouri, Abdelkhaliq Amran, Al-Harith Hamid, and Akram al-Walidi – were sentenced to death by Houthi authorities on charges of spying for the Saudi-led coalition. Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) leader Rashad al-Alimi later hosted them in Aden in May, in a meeting hailed by pro-government media as a turning point in its rights discourse. Al-Alimi used the occasion to lean into the language of restorative justice, one of the thorniest questions of future peace talks. In widely reported comments, he told the group that he would direct the government to support civil society initiatives that “memorialize and include victims in building peace and the future our people deserve.”
The journalists have spoken with admirable frankness about the mistreatment they suffered during detention, with Tawfiq al-Mansouri implicating Houthi Prisoners’ Affairs Committee chief Abdelqader al-Mortada directly in instances of the alleged abuse. As Yemeni activists have noted in previous cases, once the fanfare dies down, former detainees are usually left to deal with the ongoing trauma from their experiences with little help from the state. We have yet to see concrete plans for released prisoners to receive needed health and psychosocial support, and policies that put them on a steady path toward reintegration into society. Absent this, the government’s highlighting of journalists’ and detainees’ flight amounts to little more than cynical point scoring against both Houthi authorities and southern political forces, who are aggressively pressing their case as a state-in-waiting in the south.
Journalism in the Arab world is often viewed as as a crime and the punishments can be extreme. The situation in Yemen is particularly acute. In 2021, rights organizations said they had recorded over 3,000 cases of abuse, such as threats, censorship, and violence, including 49 deaths, since the war began. Amnesty International has criticized the Houthi authorities in particular for the use of trials and torture to extract confessions. The persecution of journalists, whoever the perpetrator, must not be allowed to disappear from the historical narrative of the war.
Yemen now ranks 168th in Reporters Without Borders’ global rankings of press freedom. But things were not always so bleak: In 2002, before the political and economic deterioration of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s final years, the country was ranked 103rd, and the Yemeni press was relatively free by regional standards. After television, radio, and print media developed in the north and south from the 1960s, unification in 1990 led to a surge of new media outlets, with more than 150 appearing by the end of the decade. The sector was still hampered by press laws that gave the government a wide berth to censor, suppress, and prosecute, while pro-government media used disinformation campaigns to target critical writers. But journalists pushed back. In one famous case, a female columnist successfully sued Al-Dustour newspaper for spreading false information about “immoral relations” with men as retaliation for her criticism of Saleh’s decision to run for reelection in 2006.
The uprising in 2011, followed by the Houthi seizure of Sana’a in 2014 and the onset of the wider war in 2015, have made Yemen one of the world’s most hostile environments for journalists. A recent study of Yemeni media showed that around 148 journalists were kidnapped or arrested and 150 websites were blocked in 2015-2016. Houthi authorities shut down six radio stations during 2022 alone. Coalition airstrikes were a deadly threat, aided by the notorious Houthi practice of using journalists and other detainees as human shields at military sites. Factional violence continues to make reporting a high-risk occupation. In June 2022, a reporter who had worked for foreign media was killed by an explosive planted in his car in Aden; another car bomb in November 2022 killed pregnant journalist Rasha Abdullah al-Harazi, a reporter for UAE-based Asharq TV, and injured her husband and fellow journalist Mahmoud al-Atmi. There is a long history of political groups trying to use industry organizations to impose their agenda, after the first effort to organize a professional syndicate of journalists in Sana’a in 1963. In February, the recently established Southern Journalists’ Syndicate was installed by force in the offices of the national Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YSJ) in Aden.
Despite the dangers associated with reporting in the country, Yemenis are drawn to journalism as a profession. The current de-escalation, which has seen the release of hundreds of prisoners, including journalists, offers the possibility that the worst may be over. There are dozens of Yemeni and international organizations concerned with press freedom – now is the time for them to step up and press the government, Houthi authorities, and other actors to uphold the rights of journalists, and to offer practical and moral support to those who have put their lives on the line to give us what is often called, with justification, the first draft of history.