Letter From Yemen:
Yemeni journalists face stiff challenges from an extremely restrictive press law and armed Islamic radicals.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
Shihab Al-Ahdal, editor of a feisty weekly in Sana'a, Yemen, carries two lifelines with him when he leaves the newsroom each day--a mobile phone that rings constantly and a handgun. As a safety precaution, the newspaper's name does not appear on the building; office doors always are kept locked.
Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, has been described as a "viper's nest of terror." Local journalists have trained themselves to operate on a high level of alert lest they fall prey to shadowy figures who believe killing infidels brings them closer to God.
Few reporters in the United States could fathom keeping an automatic weapon on hand to ward off attackers who might sneak past security guards. For staffers at Annahar, one of the few independent media voices in this remote Arab nation, threats from Islamic militants are as much a part of the routine as deadlines. To them, a Kalashnikov in the newsroom is an insurance policy.
Yemeni journalists are vulnerable on two fronts.
During an interview this summer, Al-Ahdal, flanked by two of his staffers--one of them a female reporter veiled in black--explained the struggle for press freedom in a land where editors face criminal prosecution for publishing information that "prejudices the Islamic faith." To remain in the government's good graces, journalists must report "within the context of Islamic creed," as outlined in a murky press law passed in 1990. Criticizing the president is listed among the 12 "prohibitions."
Reporters complain about being harassed, arrested, interrogated by the Press Prosecution Office, or the "Yemen Gestapo," as the PPO is known in media circles. In May, three journalists for a newspaper called the Week were convicted of violating "Yemeni morals and customs" when they wrote about men jailed for homosexuality, a taboo in the Arab state.
In Annahar's case, danger lurks from "extremist elements," as the editor describes Islamic radicals who often take issue with editorial content. Staffers are tormented with sinister messages that say, "We are in control. We can get you anytime."
"The threats are more serious because of who we are and what we stand for. We are viewed as a troublemaking newspaper," says Al-Ahdal with a hint of pride. "We take up issues other newspapers are afraid to raise." Anything considered anti-Islam is likely to spark a tirade. How worried is he about the threats? Worried enough, says Al-Ahdal, that "we have become our own bodyguards."
These journalists operate in a country of 19 million where bin Laden often is hailed as an avenging hero and anti-American sentiment has built to a crescendo over U.S. support of Israel and wars against Islamic Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. State Department advises against travel to Yemen and warns of senior al Qaeda operatives based in the mountainous interior.
The recent past bears out a need for caution. In December 2002, three American missionaries at a Baptist-run hospital in central Yemen were gunned down. It was reported that the man arrested for the murders said he killed the Americans "to get closer to God." In October 2002, the French oil tanker Limburg was attacked off the Yemen coast; one crew member was killed and 12 were wounded. In October 2001, terrorists blew a hole in the warship USS Cole as it was anchored near the port city of Aden, killing 17 American sailors. Over the past decade, more than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped.
That could explain why eight Yemeni soldiers were assigned to accompany us on a trip outside the capital of Sana'a despite our protests. One of them manned a large-caliber machine gun mounted in the back of a military truck. At least two, armed with automatic weapons, lurked nearby as we photographed and talked with locals in villages and ancient bazaars.
My husband, Frank Folwell, deputy managing editor for photo and graphics for USA Today, found men to be willing subjects. The sight of a camera sent women, peering at us from behind sheer veils, ducking for cover.
We had traveled to Yemen to conduct workshops for media professionals on such topics as investigative techniques, media ethics, writing strategies and news photography. We quickly learned that mingling with armed civilians was a way of life in one of the most impoverished countries in the Middle East.
Boys as young as 10 parade through marketplaces with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. It is tradition for men to wear a jambiyya — a large, curved dagger — in a wide, intricately carved belt. Weaponry smuggled from Russia and China is hawked alongside wagonloads of lush melons. Revenge killings, particularly in tribal areas, are part of the daily news.
Despite the Wild West-style lawlessness, threats from militants and a media law rife with loopholes for government prosecution, members of the beleaguered press corps pound a steady drumbeat for change.
Reporting from behind the veil is one of the most visible signs of progress. Today, more Yemeni women than ever have cracked newsroom barriers, covering a range of beats from health and child care to drug smuggling and politics. Earlier this year, freelance reporter Rahma Hugira, 27, a high-profile champion of women's rights, organized the Yemen Female Media Forum "to improve qualifications and empower females to get into leadership positions in all phases of the media," she says.
Hugira's petite frame is shrouded in the traditional black abaya; her brow furrows as she describes the inequities and stereotypes. "The big issue for females: There is so much ignorance against us. We are accepted but not respected. That's the mind-set of the people," the reporter says. "I have a mind. Why do they deal with me differently [than they would a man]?"
One of her goals is to wipe out a mantra on state-run radio: "The woman is the home; the home is the woman." "If we had a strong female working for the radio station, we could change the programming, change the image," says Hugira, who has written about child trafficking and government corruption. Once she slipped inside a prison, posing as a family member, to interview al Qaeda suspects.
Another defiant voice emanates from Aden, the port that gained notoriety when terrorists rammed explosives into the USS Cole. Bashrahell Bashrahell, head of the international news desk for his family's newspaper, Al-Ayyam, was among the first on the scene that day. What the paper did afterward made media history in Yemen.
Three days after the attack, Al-Ayyam ran a photo of every American killed on its front page. "We got calls from readers who didn't expect the sailors to be so young," says Bashrahell. "This newspaper always has been
pro-American, pro-West, pro-values." After the 9/11 attacks, "We condemned it immediately and ran photos," says Bashrahell. "There was no backlash from government, because if they had attacked us, it would have angered America a lot."
The editor praises the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists for supporting Al-Ayyam against government persecution. Over the years, the newspaper has been sued for publishing false information, insulting public institutions, instigating terrorism and treason. In 2001, Bashrahell's father penned a thank you: "If it hadn't been for CPJ we would be writing this from our graves right now."
As Bashrahell talked from his glassed-in office overlooking the newsroom, reporters began filtering toward the back, kneeling on ornate rugs, bowing in unison during the evening call to prayers. "We don't believe in guns," the editor says above the eerie silence. "We ask everyone who comes in now to leave their weapons at the gate." ###