Press freedom in Yemen, as both local and international observers have noted, has declined amid the ongoing civil war that began in 2015. Yemeni journalists had cause for optimism following the 2013 National Dialogue Conference, which led to the restructuring of the Journalistic Code of Ethics and the reform of laws used to restrict media activities during the era of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet the 2022 report on press freedom by Reporters Without Borders ranked Yemen 169 out of 179 countries, indicating the poor state of press freedom.
Currently, Transparency International ranks Yemen 176 out of 180 countries in its corruption index, citing attempts to undermine press freedom through various means. This article focuses on press freedom in Yemen during the significant changes that occurred during the last decade, including the removal of Saleh from power and the redefinition of press freedom. I also discuss the current situation, which hinders the freedom of journalists and citizens, as indicated by statistics from civil society organizations and the Yemeni Journalists Union.
The success and safety of freedom of expression and public opinion on specific issues often depends on the source of the information and whether it is supported or opposed by certain parties. For example, in 2021, the Saudi TV series Rashash sparked public outrage in both northern and southern Yemen as a result of a scene viewers deemed offensive to Yemeni women. However, only media outlets located in the north covered the story, mainly because the north is under the control of the Houthi rebels, who consider themselves direct opponents of Saudi Arabia. Conversely, when the salaries of government employees in northern Yemen were delayed for months, public opinion became polarized based on the varying political agendas of different media outlets.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of borders. International standards include establishing independent media bodies, regulating media outlets and their staff, the right to access information, and civil and criminal restrictions. Yemen is among the countries that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it has failed to adequately ensure an independent media free from government control. In Yemen, media outlets must comply with the authorities from the moment they are licensed, and their closure is often based on national security decisions.
Changes in press freedom after 2010
Press freedom had long been curtailed during the reign of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Most independent media outlets were not allowed to function without the approval of the authorities. Persecutions of any media outlet attempting to operate without the government’s permission were common, especially following the Southern Movement in 2007. This movement for political autonomy and representation for the southern regions was followed by the closure of Al-Ayyam, one of Yemen’s oldest southern newspapers.
After the removal of Saleh’s regime in 2012, Yemen became one of the six Arab countries to enact laws guaranteeing the right to access information. This law includes the right to obtain information without delay from all state authorities, except for matters related to national security and foreign policy. However, the application of this legal framework remains a challenge, as documents leaked from government agencies are often provided by employees who fear for their safety and collaborate with the Yemeni Journalists Union.
In conjunction with the National Dialogue Conference in 2013, the Yemeni Journalists Union adopted a Journalistic Code of Ethics during a seminar on the role of media in shaping the atmosphere of the conference and supporting the democratic transition process. This code outlined the following general principles:
- Commitment to supporting and ensuring the success of the national dialogue and the democratic transition process.
- Freedom within the limits of responsibility.
- Professionalism within the bounds of responsibility.
On World Press Freedom Day, the Yemeni Journalists Union highlighted the growing violations since the 2015 war, with 1,400 violations and 44 journalists killed in the past ten years. In 2020 alone, 112 violations against journalists were reported. In addition, the salaries of media sector employees have been cut, rendering all efforts to promote press freedom ineffective after the end of the National Dialogue Conference, including provisions related to the salary cuts.
I offer the following recommendations, directed toward a range of stakeholders that include media organizations, human rights advocates, ordinary citizens, and the state, aiming to safeguard and promote freedom of the press in Yemen:
- Use secure VPN programs for journalistic correspondence to prevent anti-press freedom entities from tracking journalists, especially given the Houthi control over the communications center in Sanaa and the coalition’s control over the communications center in Aden.
- Encourage citizen journalism, which relays events from Yemen’s provinces virtually through social media platforms. Journalists should also protect their sources of information to safeguard individuals from potential tracking by relevant authorities. Citizen journalism is also an alternative to professional reporting, as journalists are increasingly threatened with violence.
- Establish human rights committees in collaboration between the Yemeni Journalists Union, local authorities, and international entities to prosecute individuals who have violated the rights of journalists, invoking the principle that “justice does not expire.” Currently, the union has not achieved the level of coordination required to ensure the enforcement of journalists’ rights.
- Activate the constitutional provisions passed during the transitional period Yemen underwent between 2011 and 2013. These provisions grant the right to access information and ensure that the state guarantees freedom of expression for all groups. However, they have not been effectively implemented due to the events in Yemen in 2015.
- Create a new Journalistic Code of Ethics emphasizing that the media represents society’s interests, with a focus on transparency and credibility. Society should protect the media in the face of political divisions in the country. This approach was exemplified by the solidarity of Yemeni citizens in response to the case of four journalists sentenced to death by the Houthi authorities, as well as the cases of journalists Abdullah Bakir and Ahmed Al-Yazidi, who were arbitrarily detained by the second military region affiliated with President Hadi’s government. The court has been unable to issue any verdict against these journalists, as citizens protested and engaged in social media campaigns to demand an end to their detention.
By implementing these recommendations with the support of various stakeholders, Yemen has the potential to fortify the protection of journalistic freedoms and rights. The press must be afforded an environment in which it can thrive independently and responsibly, reflecting and safeguarding the interests of the society it serves.