Yemen's fight for freedom

Tawakkul Karman, the chairwoman of Women Journalists without Chains, shouts slogans during an anti-government protest in Sanaa February 10, 2011. A small group of protesters gathered outside Sanaa University to call for political reforms. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Monday, October 24, 2011

On January 27, 2011, tens of thousands of Yemenis gathered in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, to join the growing chorus of pro-democracy protests gaining steam throughout the region. Angry with high unemployment and widespread corruption in the country, protestors took to the streets to demand economic and political change, culminating in a call for the country’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. But unlike Egypt and Tunisia, whose despotic leaders were ousted within weeks, the protest movement in Yemen has lasted well past the spring months and Saleh and his supporters continue to violently suppress the opposition.

There are stories of hope. In October 2011, it was announced that one of the recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize would be 32-year old Yemeni journalist Tawakkul Karman. She is the founder of Women Journalists Without Chains, a non-government organization that advocates for journalistic independence in Yemen. A strong advocate of press freedom, many regard her as a catalyst in the 2011 uprising against President Saleh. She is the first Arab woman and Yemeni citizen to win the Peace Prize and one of the youngest-ever recipients.

But the ongoing protests have continued to create a deadly environment for Yemeni journalists and media workers. Many have been caught in the crossfire between anti-government protesters and Saleh supporters, and there are widespread reports of death threats, arson and assaults targeting journalists. As of October 24, 2011, six journalists had been killed by security forces and sniper fire. Foreign media have also been subject to the government’s repressive tactics. In March 2011, Yemeni security forces raided the apartment of four Western journalists who were later deported for their coverage of the ongoing anti-government protests. Actions such as these have seriously hampered the ability of journalists and activist groups to disseminate accurate information about the continuing violence. As the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division Sarah Leah Whitson notes, “Beating up journalists is a blatant attempt by the authorities to prevent the Yemeni people and the world from witnessing a critical moment in Yemen.”

A look at Yemen’s history under Saleh provides us with some context for the protests. After his predecessor’s assassination, Saleh had served as president of the Yemen Arab Republic (known as North Yemen prior to 1990) from 1978 to 1990. When the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (or South Yemen) united in 1990, Saleh became president of the newly formed Republic of Yemen and has been in power ever since. The south briefly seceded in May 1994, but Saleh’s military forces defeated them in July of the same year, reunifying the two halves. However, the secessionist Southern Movement and, more recently, the Houthis (a Shia sect from northern Yemen) have continued to fight for independence and challenge Saleh’s rule, arguing that they are disadvantaged and discriminated against in economic and political realms.

While Yemen is surrounded by booming oil economies, it remains one of the poorest Arab countries in the region. Oil revenues in Yemen have been declining since 2001. Production has declined by a third since then and the country’s reserves, and primary source of foreign cash, may very well run dry within the next 10 years. Yemen’s per capita GDP is roughly a tenth of that of Saudi Arabia or Oman. Yemen’s other economic pillar, agriculture, is also under threat as water is quickly running out.

Yemen’s economic malaise can be traced back to 1990, when millions of Yemenis employed in Saudi Arabia were kicked out shortly after Yemen decided to support Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, disrupting a major source of cash flow into the country. Today, nearly half of all Yemeni live below the poverty line and one-third suffer from malnutrition, according to the United Nations. The unemployment rate is high, with one-third of all Yemeni (and 40 per cent of youth) unable to find work.

Although it is the only democratic republic on the Arabian Peninsula, in reality Yemen hardly functions as such. There exist severe restrictions on press freedom and free expression, and the mainstream media is largely controlled by the state. Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law outlines many limitations for Yemeni journalists and editors, including a ban on “criticis[ing] the person of the head of state.” According to the report, Freedom of Expression in Yemen: A Critical State of Affairs, “many of these restrictions [in the Press and Publications Law] are vaguely worded, creating uncertainty about which expressions are illegal and which can be subjected to diverse and potentially arbitrary interpretations.” In 2009, the Saleh government established the Specialised Press and Publications Court, a parallel court system for media- and publications-related cases. As of September 2010, over 100 cases against journalists had been handled by the Specialised Court. Many journalists and free expression advocates have criticised its establishment, arguing that it violates Article 148 of the Constitution of the Republic of Yemen (1994), which specifically prohibits the creation of exceptional courts. Unfortunately, these criticisms continue to be ignored by Saleh and his regime.

On September 23, 2011, Saleh returned to Yemen after spending three months in Saudi Arabia, where he was receiving treatment for injuries sustained when the mosque he was in was attacked in June. He has recently vowed to resign from his post, but his opponents remain skeptical. Saleh has made previous commitments to cede power, but has always reneged on these promises.

Saleh’s base of support is quickly eroding. Many high-ranking military officers, diplomats and ministers, have resigned in protest of Saleh’s brutal attacks on civilians, including Yemen’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Several powerful tribes have also declared their support for the protest movement. However, there are serious concerns that the involvement of tribal and military leaders will turn the once-peaceful protests into a power struggle between the different factions, and many observers worry that even with Saleh’s departure, the volatile and fractious situation in Yemen could spiral into an all-out civil war. Caught in the middle of the escalating violence are the protesters, human rights activists and civilians of Yemen who seek to bring about change in their country, and the journalists who put themselves at risk to deliver their stories to the rest of the world.