Yemeni media and journalists targeted by spate of prosecutions

Yemeni media and journalists targeted by spate of prosecutions

Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns a sharp decline in the press freedom situation since the start of the second half of 2009. “What is happening in Yemen now is very serious,” the organization said. “The situation of the media is getting worse by the day, with one prosecution after another. The international community must intercede as a matter of urgency.”

Al-Maqalih tried twice

Mohamed Al-Maqalih, the editor of the opposition Socialist Party’s news website, Al-Eshteraki, and an outspoken critic of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government, has appeared before two different courts in Sanaa for trial on different charges in the past three days.

Al-Maqalih was kidnapped by five masked gunmen while returning to his home in Sanaa on the night of 17 September, a week after posting an article on the Al Eshteraki website condemning a Yemeni military air strike on fleeing civilians in the northern Sa’ada region, where fierce fighting was taking place between government forces and Zaydi separatist rebels.

The authorities denied any role in his abduction for nearly four months. After being held incommunicado for more than 100 days, he was taken before the prosecutor of a special criminal court in Sanaa on 3 February. He said at the hearing that he had been tortured and deprived of food for several days. He was admitted to a Sanaa hospital on 24 March for treatment before being finally released the following day for humanitarian and health reasons.

In the first trial, which began before a state security court on 17 April, Al-Maqalih is charged with supporting the Houthi clan of Zaydi rebels and with being in contact with the clan chief, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi. Al-Maqalih asked the judge to rule on his abduction by members of the security service but the judge refused to register his complaint and said he could always complain to the International Criminal Court.

The next day, Al-Maqalih went on trial before a special court for press offenses (created last year) on a charge of insulting President Saleh in an opinion piece published in the newspaper Al-Thaouri in 2005 about Saleh’s promise not to run for reelection in 2006. The same court is also waiting to try the newspaper’s editor, Khaled Suleiman, who sought asylum in Britain three years ago. The court adjourned Al-Maqalih’s trial without a date being set for the next hearing.

One trial after the other

A court in Lahij (45 km north of Aden) meanwhile began on 18 April to hear the appeal of Anis Ahmed Mansur Hamida, an Aden-based reporter for the daily Al-Ayyam, against the 14-month jail sentence he received on charges of “attacking national unity” and “separatism” at the end of a politically-motivated trial on 15 July 2009.

Ahmad Al-Asdi, the editor of the newspaper Itijahat, and deputy editor Mahfouz Al-Ba’ithimi’ received suspended jail sentences on 18 April in a case brought by the information ministry over an article about the Saudi opposition in issue No. 49/50.

The special court for press offenses sentenced Khaled Abdel Hadi of the Al-Eshteraki news website on 17 April to pay a fine of 10,000 rials (36 euros) and damages of 20,000 rials (72 euros) for a report on 9 February 2009 about a sit-in by residents in Lahij province who were demanding the resignation of judge Abdelmalek Al-‘Arshi.

The weekly Al-Nida will go on trial on 2 May as a result of a December 2009 complaint by the information minister accusing the newspaper of publishing reports that were false and liable to incite violence. Editor Sami Ghaleb, three other journalists – Abdel Aziz Al-Majidi, Mayfa’ Abdel Rahman and Fouad Mas’ad –were interrogated about the Al-Herak movement and other articles which, in the minister’s view, posed a threat to national unity and democracy. Al-Nida journalist Shafi’ Al-Abd was arrested by National Security officials on 24 December in Aden on a charge of forming a political party hostile to “national security and unity” and was taken to Khor Maksar prison in Aden province, from where he was released on 27 January.

Fouad Rashed, editor of the Al Mukallah Press website, who was arrested on 4 May 2009, will go on trial on 24 May. He was attacked and injured by fellow-inmates in Sanaa’s main prison on 8 April. Salah Al-Saqladi, the editor of the Adengulf website, and Ahmed Al-Rabizi, an activist, will go on trial with Rashed. Arrested at his Aden home on 18 June 2009 and interrogated by based intelligence officials in Aden, Al-Saqladi was transferred four days later to Sanaa’s top security prison, where he was forbidden to receive visits from human rights activists and representatives of the journalists’ union. He was finally transferred on 17 February to Sanaa’s main prison. Al-Rabizi was arrested in Aden on 12 May.

Recent convictions

On 16 January, a special court for press matters in Sanaa sentenced Anissah Mohammed Ali Othman to three months in jail and banned her from working as a journalist for a year for “insulting the president” in two articles for the weekly Al-Wassat (issues 155 and 156) in July 2007. The court also and fined her editor, Jamal Amer 10,000 rials (34 euros). Entitled “Intimidation of children on the president’s orders” and “Government targets powerless, like a blind mouse against its enemies,” the articles were written in solidarity with Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, a journalist who was then in prison.

A Sanaa court sentenced Moaz Al-Ashhabi on 16 January to a year in prison and a one-year ban on working as journalist on a charge of “falsifying the Koran” in an op-ed piece headlined They corrected the Koran. The article, which referred to an ongoing debate in Yemen about vocalization of the Koran (the addition of diacritic marks indicating vowels), appeared on 7 October 2009 in issue No. 503 of the weekly Al-Thaqafa (published by the foundation Al-Jumhurriya/The Republic). He is still being held in Sanaa’s main prison.

Closures and confiscations

The independent weekly Al-Watani has been subject to a publishing ban imposed by information minister Hassan Al-Lawzi since 3 April. The minister ordered printing companies to stop printing the weekly as a result of its coverage of festivals organized by Al-Herak (a south Yemen independence movement) and an article by Samia Al-Aghbari that was deemed to have libeled President Saleh. It was the ninth time the magazine has been banned since the start of the government’s offensive against the media on national security grounds in May 2009. Five of its journalists have been arrested for articles deemed to have undermined the government’s prestige and national pride.

The authorities seized broadcast equipment from the Sanaa bureaux of the satellite TV stations Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera on 11 March on the grounds that their coverage of unrest in the south of the country was not objective. The confiscation was clearly motivated by a desire to get rid of potential witnesses.

Since 4 May 2009, eight independent newspapers (seven weeklies and the daily Al-Ayyam) accused of promoting “separatism” have been subject to a printing ban imposed by the information minister on the grounds of defending “national unity.”

Arbitrary arrests

Hisham Bashraheel, Al-Ayyam’s founder and owner, was arrested on 6 January 2010 after a 24-hour siege of his newspaper’s Aden headquarters by the security forces. One of his sons, Hani Bashraheel, the newspaper’s editor, was arrested at the same time. Another son, Mohammed Hisham Bashraheel, was arrested the day before. Hisham Bashraheel was released on medical grounds on 24 March but his two sons are still held.

Khalid Jahafi, a 38-year-old journalist who works for the opposition news website and the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, was arrested on 27 December 2009 while photographing clashes between police and south Yemen independence supporters, and was beaten on the orders of national security chief Alaa Mohammed Al-Azraqi. Two months before his arrest, the security forces staged an unsuccessful attempt to arrest him by overrunning the education department building in Al-Dhalli’ (200 km south of Sanaa), where he also works as a lecturer. After many weeks without any news of him, he was finally released on 1 February without being charged.

Journalism student Iyyad Ghanem, who was arrested on 2 July 2009 for filming a meeting organized by supporters of the southern separatist rebels in the town of Korsh, was released in March 2010.

Disturbing bill

The parliament is currently considering a draft media law that was submitted in 2005 by the ruling General People’s Congress with the aim of replacing the current one, which dates back to 1990. In a statement for, Union of Yemeni Journalists spokesman Saeed Thabet said the bill was “authoritarian, worse than the law currently in force.” If adopted, the law would send the Yemeni media back to the situation prevailing in the 1970s and 1980s.

On 18 February 2010, Reporters Without Borders submitted a request for a visa to carry out a fact-finding visit to Yemen. It still has not received a response.

Republished with permission from bikya masr