Journalists and human rights defenders targeted in Yemen during ongoing crisis

Monday, May 25, 2015
A follower of the Houthi movement holds up a banner depicting journalist Abdul Kareem al-Khaiwani during a demonstration commemorating an attack on pro-democracy protesters in Sana'a, March 18, 2015; that same day al-Khaiwani, one of Yemen's top journalists and an activist close to the Houthis, was murdered by assailants on a motorbike. PHOTO: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi
By Violet Rusu Tensions in war-torn Yemen continue to simmer between Houthi militiamen, fighters for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Saudi-led coalition, with media workers, human rights defenders and civilians increasingly caught in the crossfire. The U.S.-backed coalition, composed of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and led by Saudi Arabia, launched a four week air-strike that began on March 26. Reports show that in just the first month of these hostilities almost 1,000 civilians perished, 4,000 were injured, and 150,000 were forced to flee the country. The Houthi rebels advanced across Yemen in September 2014 when they took over the capital city Sana’a; they seized complete control of Yemen’s main government buildings in January 2015, eventually forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. The Saudi-led coalition hopes to restore Hadi to power and prevent the further destabilization of an already politically fragile Yemen, where multiple groups, including AQAP, the Houthis, ISIS, and forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh advance in the country’s disorder. In March of this year, the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YJS) reported that they had documented 67 cases of journalists being prevented from doing their jobs in the months since the Houthis assumed control of the country. On the one hand, since the start of 2015 journalists and media workers perceived as supportive of the Houthi rebels and Saleh have been continuously targeted by the Saudi-led coalition. On the other hand, Houthi militiamen have undertaken their own campaign of intimidation and violence against journalists they identify as affiliates of the Saudi-led coalition. Media workers have also been caught in the crossfire in their attempts to cover individual battles between warring forces. On January 4, an employee of Al-Masirah, a Yemeni TV channel accused of Houthi sympathies, Khalid Mohammed al Washali, and three others were killed after a bomb hit the Yemeni city of Dhamar. During a peaceful demonstration on January 28, an armed group linked to the Houthi rebels beat ten press photographers working for foreign media such as Reuters, Al-Aalam TV and France 24. In the month of March, the number of violations against the press was staggering. On March 5, two journalists working for Akhbar Al Yaoum, Abdelwahed Nejjar and Fouad Zoubayri, were kidnapped from the Ashoumwaa printing and publishing house by Houthis. Tables, chairs, and printing equipment were also confiscated at that time. On March 18, Abdul Kareem al-Khaiwani a Yemeni journalist from Sana’a, was shot and killed by assailants on motorbikes after representing a Houthi group in a conference on Yemen’s future, while on March 26 Shi’ite Houthi militiamen overran the Sana’a headquarters of three satellite television channels: Al-Jazeera, Al-Yaman-Shabab (Yemen-Youth), and Yemen Digital Media. Also in March, the Houthis blocked access to at least six news websites and portals seen as critical of their activities, Al-Sahwa Net, Yemen Press, Yemen Voice, Mareb Press, Yemen Saeed, and Sahafa Net. About a month ago, Yemeni journalist Waheed al-Sufi was kidnapped after two gunmen overheard him inquiring about paying the phone bill for his newspaper, the weekly Al-Arabiya, which shares a name with a Saudi television channel despite having no relation to the network. While none of the country’s warring parties has claimed responsibility for Al-Sufi’s abduction yet, it seems fairly likely given the circumstances that the culprits are linked to the Houthis. Most recently, journalist Mohammed Shamsan and three other staff members of Sana’a-based television station Yemen Today were killed in an April 20 airstrike that appears to have targeted the broadcaster’s office. In the weeks before the attack on Yemen Today, coalition forces warned that the station was being considered as a legitimate military target due to coverage seen as supportive of the Houthis and Saleh. Deliberate attacks on media outlets and journalists are illegal under international law, as they are afforded protection as civilians in a conflict zone, and contribute to the absence of accurate, up to date information about happenings on the ground in the country. A Red Cross official has described Yemen as being in a state of humanitarian catastrophe, with a Saudi-led blockade depriving the Yemeni people of food, fuel, water and medicines. A five-day humanitarian ceasefire began on May 12, with both of the main warring parties abiding by the agreement to allow food, water, and medical assistance to civilians in the country’s war zones; however, with the pause in hostilities now over, the humanitarian crisis has resumed with no end in sight. While the number of casualties from the conflict continues to rise, attempts at peace talks have been repeatedly rebuffed. Negotiations proposed by former leader Saleh were rejected on April 26 by Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen, and although a set of United Nations-sponsored discussions were optimistically scheduled to begin in Geneva on May 28, with renewed fighting taking place in the south of the country they have been indefinitely put on hold. According to the International Federation of Journalists, journalists in Yemen are facing increasing threats as the political and military situation in the country continues to steeply decline. The sheer magnitude of attacks on media workers in Yemen vividly illustrates the warring parties’ anxiety to control the flow of information about the conflict in the country, particularly in terms of how it is portrayed on the international stage. With so many special interest groups jockeying for influence, and journalists being targeted from every side of the multifaceted conflict, press freedom is virtually non-existent for local journalists in Yemen at this time. The presence of media workers, as well as independent and objective reporting from a variety of perspectives is vital to keeping the local and international communities informed about the sustained crisis in Yemen. The absence of these voices is detrimental to all, and as such all parties to the conflict must endeavour to protect journalists working in the country, and respect the importance of their role in bearing witness to these events.
Violet Rusu is a volunteer for CJFE and a freelance political journalist based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @RusuViolet.

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