Yemen, a war-ridden Middle Eastern country, is widely labeled as the nation with the worst humanitarian crisis by human rights organisations around the world. Since the end of Arab Spring, the country has been in a free fall with respect to socioeconomic indicators following a failed political transition from Ali Abdullah Saleh to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is the current Yemeni president.
Free speech and media freedom have also taken a hit in Yemen’s polarised and volatile political climate, which is a result of continual power struggle between Saudi-led forces – who are Hadi supporters – and the rebel Houthis, a Shia muslim minority group that is now in control of the capital city Sanaa.
Freedom House, an organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights, said in a 2016 report that Houthi forces carried out dozens of raids on media outlets and detentions of journalists in 2015 in an attempt to suppress dissent.
The Civil War and its Effect on Human Rights & Press Freedom
According to the World Press Freedom Index, an annual list compiled by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom rank of Yemen stood at 167 out of 180 countries in 2020. The rank has been stagnant since the outbreak of the war in 2014.
The Freedom House report notes that although historically state-backed press was dominant in the country, “production and distribution for all media outlets was impeded in 2015 by lack of security, damage to infrastructure, and shortages of electricity and basic supplies like fuel as a result of the conflict.”
A more recent report from Freedom House, which labelled Yemen “Not Free”, says that the war has made Yemen more dangerous for journalists, who endure violent attacks and enforced disappearances from all sides in the conflict.
Since then, various parties involved in the ongoing civil war have reportedly taken control of the media, leaving no room for “neutral” reporting. While local journalists were said to have been routinely targeted, independent and foreign journalists too were prevented from reporting or entering the country.
The seemingly-unending conflict between Houthis and Saudi-led forces has led to extreme poverty and famine. According to the United Nations, tens of thousands of people have either died or injured, and around 3.3 million remain displaced. In addition to crackdowns on the media, journalists are also forced to grapple with poor economic conditions.
Media Freedom Violations
Four of nine journalists, arrested in 2015 on charges of “spying” and “spreading false news and rumours,” were sentenced to death penalty by a court in the Houthi-led capital Sanaa in 2020. This sparked major international outcry and condemnations. Over 150 human rights and press freedom organisations called to overturn the death sentences of the four journalists – Abdel-Khaleq Amran, Akram al-Walidi, Hareth Hamid, and Tawfiq al-Mansouri.
The Media Freedom Coalition’s Executive Group representing Canada, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, called on the Houthis to disavow their decision of putting the four journalists to death, free all other detained journalists, and refrain from undermining media freedom.
Al Jazeera quoted Khalid Ibrahim, Executive Director, Gulf Centre for Human Rights as saying, “the charges against the journalists are fabricated. They were just doing their jobs as journalists.”
The other five journalists arrested along with them reported their account of the abuse and torture they faced in prison.
“They denied us food for several days, and sometimes denied us using bathrooms for 24 hours. We were exposed to different forms of physical and psychological torture while we were being interrogated in addition to being threatened to be placed in an armoury, so that we’d be killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike, a method the Houthis have used to kill our collegaues Abdullah Qabel and Yousif Al Aizari earlier,” said an unofficial spokesperson of the five released journalists.
In September 2020, Adel Al-Hasani, a Yemeni journalist who has contributed to international news outlets such as BBC, CNN, and Vice, was reportedly detained by authorities after he helped two international journalists detained while covering the war, according to a recent report published by HuffPost. The report also hinted at the involvement of US-linked forces.
“Al-Hasani’s situation implicates the U.S., which is already tied to hundreds of alleged war crimes in Yemen and yet purports to shield press freedom around the world,” said the report.
RSF notes that 278 journalists and 112 media assistants are currently imprisoned in Yemen.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global media freedom organisation, 22 journalists have been killed in Yemen since 1992.