Journalists in Yemen under pressure

Walking home in the orange light of the narrow streets of Sana’a Old City, the sila (sunken road) circling the ancient tower houses was the same as it is every night – deserted – bar the occasional check point of tired looking soldiers wrapped up in trench coats with kafiyas bound around their heads.

I crept home to my bed, exhausted after two busy days of covering the sudden upsurge of violence in the capital. Unlike the previous two mornings my wake up call was not an early morning text message telling of gunfire, attacks or impending violence from activists at the university encampment, now the centre stage of the anti-government protests, but this time came from friend and fellow journalist Laura Kasinof.

Armed police had raided the house I’d left just a few hours earlier, arresting four journalist friends. During the next few frantic calls to contacts with friends in high places their location remained a mystery. The political security and police denied they had them and still hours later the British embassy had no idea where they were being held. Then reports came through that they were at the Immigration Authority, but would be released and given a few days to sort out their paper work. Moments later these hopes were dashed when they were spotted at the airport.

Various excuses have been given for why they were expelled, from illegal entry, to not attending classes at the Arabic language schools who sponsor visas for students. But the reason given during their detention was that it was matter of “national security”. One of the deportees, Oliver Holmes, was pulled aside by an official to be told that coverage of the recent violence was behind his removal. Joshua Maricich was informed he’d over stayed his visa, which still has two weeks to run and his application for renewal had already been made.

In the complex and opaque Yemeni visa system, with constantly changing goal posts, the majority of resident Western freelancers are on student visas, sponsored by local Arabic schools (command of the language is an essential tool here where English speakers are few and far between) with the full knowledge of the Ministry of Information and other government officials that they are working as foreign correspondents. Some have lived here for years on that basis. Yesterday the long-standing mutual understanding between foreign freelancers and authorities disintegrated. The number of permanently based journalists reporting for the UK and US media was halved overnight.

Today, through the state run news agency Saba, the Ministry of Information denied they were journalists and said they were living in hiding. Joshua has lived for years, and Oliver for months, in the house they were taken from and they were all recently invited to (bar Joshua), and attended, a presidential press conference.

Since daily anti-government protests began more than a month ago attacks on and harassment of journalists and photographers have become commonplace. The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate building has been stormed and local news outlets have also been inhibited.

Yesterday’s deportees were not even the first Westerns to be kicked out of the country amid the changing atmosphere in Yemen. But as far as world coverage of events in Yemen are concerned it’s a significant blow.

With just a handful of us left we’re a nervous bunch. For now, all we can do is sit, wait and keep working, while trying not to jump out of our skins every time someone knocks on the door. Getting into the protest area is also an issue as security cordons have to be passed and all of us are familiar western faces amongst many of the senior officers manning the entrances into the spreading tented village, home to thousands of anti-government demonstrators in the west of the capital.

The government stopped issuing visas to journalists weeks ago, due to the “overwhelming number of visas demanded”. If we’re all forced to leave it begs the questions of: What happens next? Does that leave security forces with an open invitation to do what they like, without international eyes watching? Is this the build up to an even greater military crackdown? Questions we don’t know the answer to but are increasingly pressing.

The deported journalists were: Oliver Holmes (Wall Street Journal, Time) Portia Walker (Daily Telegraph, Washington Post) Haley Sweetland Edwards who had returned to Yemen for a few weeks, (Los Angeles Times, Atlantic) and Joshua Maricich, a climbing enthusiast, photographer and researcher who had recently written a government supported book on Yemen.

NOTE  (in case it becomes relevant at a later date): I’m in Yemen on a journalist-sponsored visa via my base at the Yemen Times where I work as an editor along with two other western journalists.