- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

SAN’A, Yemen - Reporters here say freedom of the press is declining as jailings and harassment increase, despite praise for efforts toward reforms and complete democracy.

“Journalists are now very afraid of being arrested and are much more careful about what they write,” said Hafez al-Bukari, general secretary of the Yemen Journalists Syndicate. “They fear that anything can happen to them at any time.”

Early last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that commended reforms in Yemen and a half-dozen other Middle Eastern countries, citing efforts for political, educational and economic improvements. International observers judged this country’s 2003 parliamentary elections to be free and fair, but with irregularities such as underage voting, voter intimidation and violence. The congressional resolution offered aid to Yemen to continue to develop democracy and freedom.

But some say pressure on the press is hindering Yemen’s progress.

“Arresting journalists and closing newspapers does serious harm to democracy,” said Majid al-Fahed, executive director of the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation in Yemen. “There is a strong relationship between freedom of expression and democracy.”

Yemen’s Center for Training and Protection of Journalists’ Freedom reported more than 120 incidents against journalists in 2004, the most in any year since unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. It added that court verdicts against journalists rose 80 percent.

Although Yemen still ranks above several other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and Bahrain, Reporters Without Borders dropped Yemen in rank from 103 to 136 in its world press freedom index between 2002 and 2004.

Sensitive subjects

Many say pressure against the press increased in September when Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Shoura (the Consultation), was sentenced to a year in prison and the paper was suspended for six months. Mr. al-Khaiwani was charged with incitement, publishing false information, causing tribal and sectarian discrimination, and insulting the president.

No defense attorney was present during the trial, and no appeal has been allowed.

In December, up to seven journalists were sentenced to prison. Abdul Karim Sabra, editor of the weekly Al-Hurriya (Freedom), and one of its reporters, Abdul Qawi al-Qabati, were sentenced to two years for insulting the president, and the weekly was closed for one year.

Other journalists received suspended sentences ranging from three to six months for reporting false information, damaging Yemen’s relations with neighboring Saudi Arabia and defaming a Yemeni minister. Four more newspapers reportedly were closed or suspended.

Although it was not clear what was behind the press clampdown, some analysts said reporters began writing more critically on issues considered sensitive in Yemen.

“What happened last year was that the press addressed issues they hadn’t addressed before,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, professor of political science at San’a University. “They targeted sensitive issues and high government officials, and it caused a reaction by those in power.”

Journalists paid more attention to corruption: Transparency International dropped Yemen in its index on corruption from 88th place in 2003 to 112th place last year, competing with Sudan and Iraq for most corrupt in the region.

Although the government has been pushing to lift subsidies on diesel fuel — amounting to $800 million in 2004 — as part of economic reforms, opposition parties are calling for government reform first, before price increases affect consumers in one of the poorest countries of the Middle East.

Also “crossing over the line,” reporters said, was coverage of nepotism and the three-month battle between government forces and a militant group led by Sheik Hussein Badr Eddin al-Huthi. Mr. al-Khaiwani was arrested not long after Al-Shoura published articles about the conflict, which left hundreds dead before it ended in September.

Regulation inside, outside

In a December session of parliament, Information Minister Hussein al-Awadhi replied to questions from lawmakers about government handling of the press by saying: “There have been no press-freedom violations, and all decisions have been taken in accordance with the law.”

Yemeni reporters, however, are urging changes in the press law, saying it is vague and easily used to accuse journalists of breaking the law.

“All you have to do is open the press and publication law, and you will find that it is very broad and it doesn’t explain exactly what is right and wrong, what you can do and what you can’t do,” said Walid al-Saqqaf, editor in chief of the Yemen Times. “It is easily abused. They are able to point to one article in the law and you are cornered.”

Journalists have protested Mr. al-Khaiwani’s jailing and held a mid-January demonstration outside the presidential palace.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh responded by asking the justice minister to review and resolve the al-Khaiwani case.

Until now, newspapers have felt a need to increase self-censorship.

“When you hear about closing a newspaper as easily as if it is a small grocery store, you can imagine the risk here,” said Mr. al-Saqqaf. “Every month we find more restrictions. We have imposed self-censorship, which is not part of the spirit of a free press.

“If we don’t impose it on ourselves and move along the same trend as we did in the past, you wouldn’t be surprised to find me in the next lawsuit.”

Some analysts say freedom of speech must be established and sustained for progress to be made toward democracy.

“Freedom of the press was the cornerstone of democracy in Yemen,” said Mr. al-Faqih. “Journalists were pushing for freedom, then the government cracked down and it looks like Yemen has gone back to square one. The country made progress on freedom, such as freedom of expression, then suddenly it was put in reverse.”

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