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Commentary Crackdown on Press Freedom in Yemen Threatens Peace-Building Efforts

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

As a Yemeni with over 15 years of experience in journalism, I was delighted to have recently been invited by the Samir Kassir Foundation to be one of the seven jury members for its 2023 Award for Freedom of the Press. I am the second Yemeni to be on the foundation’s jury, after photojournalist Amira al-Sharif took part in 2021. Out of 240 entries, 75 made it to the pre-final stage, where they were judged based on three criteria: relevance to human rights topics, journalistic style, and innovation. The winners were announced on June 5: Syrian filmmaker and writer Inas Hakky in the opinion piece category, Egyptian journalist Mahmoud Al-Sobky in the investigative article category, and Lebanese reporter Mohamad Chreyteh in the audiovisual news report category.

As I reviewed the entries from multiple Arab countries, I could not help feeling disappointed with the small number of entries by Yemeni journalists and the generally poor quality of the work. It was a sad reminder of the severe deterioration of press freedom in Yemen, the dangerous environment Yemeni journalists now work in, and the impact of that deterioration on our struggle for peace and justice in our country.

War on Media

Prior to 2014, Yemen enjoyed a relatively vibrant media landscape, but this has been rapidly eroded during the war. All parties to the Yemen conflict have committed abuses against journalists, and even ordinary citizens who express themselves on social media have not been spared from the recent crackdown on freedom of expression.

Almost half of Yemen’s media outlets that existed prior to 2014 have reportedly been shut down, and at least 49 Yemeni journalists have been murdered since 2011, including five killed by the Saudi-led coalition. The Houthi movement will go down in history for having used journalists as human shields, after abducting two and keeping them captive in a building being targeted by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in 2015, leading to their deaths. In the latest wave of repressive measures against dissent, between December 2022 and January 2023 the Houthis detained four YouTubers for nearly six months before granting them pardons. In Aden, largely controlled by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), car bombs killed pregnant journalist Rasha al-Harazi, and journalist Saber al-Haidari in June 2022. The STC has detained journalist Ahmed Maher since August 2022, with no clear reason for his arrest. The STC’s detention of journalist Adel al-Hasani in 2021 remains particularly poignant for me, as I investigated the case while working at Human Rights Watch, and found evidence that a UAE intelligence officer had ordered his detention.

The Yemeni government, which championed the recent release of four journalists from Houthi prisons, has assaulted nine journalists, detained nine more, and threatened three in 2022 alone.

And the list goes on.

Media Freedom Matters

These violations give a glimpse into a widespread pattern of repression in the country and the dangers facing Yemeni journalists at the hands of all warring parties. They also reflect the threat media freedom poses to them. It is telling that one of the first military attacks the Houthi movement carried out when they took over Sana’a in 2014 was the shelling of the state television building. Attacks on the press in Yemen are motivated by the warring parties’ understanding of the significance of a strong, independent press.

In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day in May of this year, “Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy and justice.” If Yemen enjoyed media freedom, journalists could play critical roles in raising people’s awareness of their rights and promoting peace and justice. A free press could contribute to the prosperity of the nation.

How We Can Support a Free Press in Yemen

In June of 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, said, “Independent, free and pluralistic news media is crucial for democracy, accountability, and transparency, and should be nurtured by states and the international community as a public good.” Ensuring media freedom in Yemen likewise requires international action.

Calls on the warring parties to end their violations and abuses against journalists have been in vain. Holding them accountable, however, could pay off. The UN Human Rights Council is morally obliged to establish an independent and impartial monitoring body to investigate and document human rights abuses and possible war crimes in Yemen, which could contribute to accountability efforts.

Yemeni journalists lack international support for press-related work. The UN, European Union, UK, US, and relevant international organizations should generously fund and support media groups in Yemen. Journalists need support in three main areas: projects that aim at building a strong and independent press, journalism oriented toward a peaceful settlement, and projects that improve journalists’ skills. This support would go a long way in helping Yemeni journalists document attacks and threats directed at the media, gather evidence to hold perpetrators to account, and bring impunity for war crimes to an end.