The death of journalism in Yemen's war

The death of journalism in Yemen's war
The threat of execution has now become a potential punishment against journalists in Yemen, reflecting the deadly reality of reporting in the war-torn country.
5 min read
29 April, 2020
Yemen's warring parties have used a variety of approaches to clamp down on journalists. [Getty]
With the rule of law in Yemen paralysed by years of war, journalism is often associated with spying or communicating sensitive information to political rivals. 

Now, the threat of execution has also become a potential punishment, reflecting the deadly reality of reporting in the war-torn country. 

Earlier in April, a court in Houthi-controlled Sanaa issued a ruling that upheld the execution of Abdel-Khaleq Amran, Akram al-Walidi, Hareth Hamid and Tawfiq al-Mansouri. The Houthi group arrested ten journalists, including these four, in Sanaa in 2015. They have been in custody ever since. 

The group accused them of creating and managing several online websites and social media platforms. Another accusation levelled against them was that the Saudi-led Arab coalition used the journalists' reporting to launch airstrikes. 

"The court sentenced four journalists to death on charges of treason and spying for foreign states," Abdulmajeed Sabra, the lawyer of the journalists, said at the time. While the verdict can be appealed, it is uncertain what the end result will be.   

A war on journalists

Read more: Saudi Arabia's faltering divide and rule strategy in Yemen

Over the last five years, Yemen's warring parties have used a myriad of approaches to clamp down on journalists. Harsh practices like detentions, abductions or confiscating job-related equipment, such as cameras and laptops, have been all commonplace.  

The execution order, however, based on a court ruling, is an unprecedented punitive approach, a matter that journalists see as a new chapter of intimidation and oppression of the media in Yemen, particularly in Houthi-controlled territories.  

"The death sentence of the four Yemeni journalists is a clear alarming message to all opposing voices in Houthi areas. The authorities there have two ways to silence critics: incarceration or execution," said Mohammed Samei, a Taiz-based journalist. 

Presently, around 20 journalists are in jail. Sixteen were kidnapped and detained by the Houthi group, three arrested by the government and one kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, according to a recent report by the Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate (YJS). The Houthi group ranks first in terms of violations committed against journalists.

Read more: Preferring to stay silent: Why journalists in Yemen are giving up on their career

"As a journalist, I would not feel safe to work in Houthi-controlled areas because they have zero tolerance for criticism. In other areas of Yemen, there are still difficulties, but it is better than Sanaa or any territory ruled by the Houthi group," said Samei. 

Arbitrary detention and the absence of fair trials have characterised this era of war on journalism in Yemen. Merely an accusation can lead to detention, and once behind bars, trials go on for years, ending up with an unfair ruling.

Over the last five years, Yemen's warring parties have used a myriad of approaches to clamp down on journalists

"I know these journalists personally. I believe they had not engaged in so-called espionage or spreading rumours. If the Houthis could oust the president and the government [in 2015], so they can detain, kidnap, or execute any journalist or anyone opposing them," Samei said. 

Yemen ranked 168 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, according to a yearly round-up by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released in December of last year. 

In 2016, Yemen was ranked 166th out of 180 countries. This evidently indicates declining press freedom and the mounting dangers media workers face in the war-ravaged country.  

According to the YJS, 27 journalists have been killed since the conflict began between 2014 to 2018. Last year, RSF reported that two journalists died while covering the conflict.  

Green light for extrajudicial killings

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The death sentence passed against the four journalists has unleashed a wave of reactions and condemnations. RSF denounced the ruling, calling on the Houthis to immediately release the four journalists.  

"The death sentences are typical of the way the Houthi rebels have systematically persecuted journalists, and are indicative of a readiness to use summary justice to settle scores with all critical media," Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF's Middle East desk, said earlier in April. 

"Neither the sentences nor the arbitrary detention of all ten journalists since 2015 can be justified. They must be freed". 

Tawfik Alhamidi, the head of Geneva-based SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties, said in a media statement the court ruling against the journalists has foreshadowed a catastrophe at the level of freedom of opinion in Yemen.  

"The death sentence of the four journalists by a Houthi-run court is similar to granting the green light to extrajudicial killing," said Alhamidi.

Read more: War-weary Yemenis eye a shaky ceasefire with suspicion

He noted that the courts and the judiciary do not have the authority to issue such rulings. "This is a dangerous precedent against journalism and journalists in the country."   

Khalil Muthana Alomary, a Belgium-based Yemeni strategy researcher and journalist, told The New Arab such a cruel ruling was expected of the Houthis.

The death sentence of the four journalists by a Houthi-run court is similar to granting the green light to extrajudicial killings

"Dozens of newspapers have been shut down in Sanaa and journalists have been chased. Journalists in Yemen have been subjected to death, torture and kidnapping. Sanaa today has one voice and one opinion of one group," Alomary said.   

Given the deteriorating press freedom in the country, Alomary left Yemen a few years back just like many journalists who fled in search of a better and safer environment.  

"Yemen has become an anti-press environment. The Southern Transitional Council's militias are in the south and the Houthis are in the north. There is a small margin of freedom in Taiz and Marib that are controlled by the UN-recognised government," he said.  

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Today, Alomary feels safe when he writes or posts on social media sites. He can criticise all the warring sides in Yemen without fearing being arrested or kidnapped. 

"Like many journalists from Yemen, I prefer to work outside the country. Currently, there are over ten Yemeni TV channels that broadcast outside Yemen," he said.

"There are also dozens of Yemeni news websites that operate outside Yemen including RaiAlyemen news website which I am running from Brussels." 

The war in Yemen entered its sixth-year last month and an end to this devastating conflict is unlikely to happen soon. Thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced, and poverty has increased dramatically.

But Alomary is still hopeful this quagmire will disappear one day.  "I hope this bad nightmare will vanish and I hope Sanaa's climate of freedom of opinion and press will return."  

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.

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