Yemen: repression veiled by law

President Saleh’s regime has long been renowned for extrajudicial abductions, threatening and intimidating journalists and crudely censoring the Yemeni press. Al-Ayyam, an independent daily newspaper based in the southern city of Aden, was once Yemen’s most highly circulated publication reaching more than 70,000 readers. Last May, armed men in civilian clothing confiscated and burned 16,500 copies of the newspaper marking the beginning of a crude publishing ban on the newspaper. Journalists who organised a sit-in this January outside the Al-Ayyam offices were confronted by government forces who used machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades against their compound.

In addition to rocket-propelled grenades, Saleh’s regime has recently added a new weapon to its journalist-bashing armoury: a quietly constructed legal apparatus to harshly dissuade negative media coverage.

According to a damning report released last week by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Yemeni government has, in the past two years, begun taking legislative and administrative steps to further curtail free expression in Yemen. The report carefully documents an array of legislative proposals – some are still pending in parliament – that would set prohibitive financial barriers for broadcast and online news outlets, expand the definition of criminal defamation to include virtually any form of criticism of the president, and increase prison terms, in some cases up to ten years.

Saleh’s administration is now cloaking its brutal repression of journalists in law. This is alarming news for journalists in Yemen. The message is clear enough: ‘we have the ability to attack you – with or without the law.’

One of the Yemeni journalists I interviewed for an article in the Yemen Times saw the government’s new legislative proposals as little more than a marketing scheme. "They use it as a way to market themselves to the international community, a kind of decoration, to encourage donors and get money…" he told me.

As well as calling for the abolition of the Special Press and Publications Court – itself a violation of Article 148 of the Yemeni constitution – the report also sends a clear message out to the increasing number of international donors to Yemen: they must start relaying to Yemeni officials that the billions of dollars worth of aid flooding into Yemen may not be used to harass or silence critical media.

With its remote mountainous terrain and increasing number of ‘no go’ areas, obtaining reliable information about what is happening on the ground in Yemen is notoriously difficult. But unless (what little remains of) the independent press is protected, soon no one will be able to know what is happening inside Yemen.

Interestingly, an ‘unnamed source’ from within the Yemeni government responded to the CPJ report today on Saba news – the government’s mouthpiece – accusing its author, Mohamed Abdel Dayem, of ‘abusing Yemen and distorting the reality of its press freedoms, which Yemen witnesses within the framework of a pluralist democracy.’

In Yemen, the government holds a monopoly on all television and radio and frequently bans journalists for publishing "incorrect" information. In 2001, a journalist at the newspaper Al-Shura was sentenced to receive 80 lashes for defaming Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani, the leader of the country’s largest Islamist party.