Murder, mayhem and manipulation: The brutal methods used to silence independent journalism in Yemen
This article is part of The New Arab’s States of Journalism series, a sustained exploration of freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and global media landscapes. Read more of the series’ articles here.
While driving his car in Aden on June 15, a massive blast left the vehicle charred. The man on the steering wheel died instantly. A passer-by got injured, and others watched agape in horror.
It was an apparent assassination. Everyone at the scene began sadly asking: Who was the one leading the car? It may be a high-profile official. Or a military commander. Or an influential politician. No. All assumptions were wrong. Indeed, the victim was a Yemeni journalist.
Saber Al-Haideri, an independent Yemeni journalist, lost his life when his car blew off at the heart of Aden city, to the south of Yemen. Unknown elements planted an explosive device in his vehicle to shed his blood and silence him forever. The criminal plot succeeded.
"The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) published a report in May which states 49 Yemeni media members have been murdered since 2011. With Haidari's murder this month, the total becomes 50"
Haideri's murder was a reminder that journalism here is a dangerous field, especially for those who are independent, committed to media ethics, and loyal to the truth. The plight of the media in Yemen began in 2011 when the popular uprising broke out. During that year alone, five journalists were killed.
After the breakout of the 2015 civil war between the Iran-backed Houthis and the UN-recognized government, the media climate grew worse. Since then, violence against independent media has neither plummeted nor stopped. The longer the conflict continues, the riskier the journalism profession becomes.
Rising hostility towards journalism
Previous to the war, working in the media was not unsafe. Journalists could speak to people and take photos after asking for permission when necessary. They could show the job card to access some places and get the needed support. Journalists could travel from one province to another to write or film stories. Today, doing this is a severe risk, particularly for independent journalists who cannot be tempted to distort the truth.
The conflict parties are increasingly hostile to independent media. They only appreciate the press if it polishes their images or defames opponents. For the warring sides, a simple rule is used to gauge the loyalty of journalists: If you are not on my side, you are against me.
Since late last year, three journalists, including Haidari, have been killed in cruel ways, demonstrating the extent of antagonism the perpetrators have towards journalism. A brief narration of the latest murders can be presented.
On March 23 this year, photojournalist Fawaz Alwafi was found dead in his car in Taiz province. Police said that Alwafi sustained multiple stabs on his body by unknown assassins. No information has been revealed so far about the identity of the killers.
The haters of independent journalism devise different plans to carry out their crimes. Extreme callousness is common to all of them. In November last year, Rasha al-Harazi, an independent journalist, was killed when her car exploded in Aden. Her husband, Mahmoud Alatmi, a journalist, was accompanying her in the car and sustained severe injuries.
Like Haidari's murder, the couple had an explosive device planted in their vehicle. Harazi was going to the hospital for a medical checkup. She was about to receive her second child, but the heartless plotters already had the scheme to take her life, the life of her husband and her unborn baby. That was the price the couple paid for being journalists in this country.
Figures tell the truth
The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) published a report in May which states 49 Yemeni media members have been murdered since 2011. With Haidari's murder this month, the total becomes 50. Those killed are journalists and photojournalists, the majority of whom are independent.
In 2020, four journalists were sentenced to death by the Houthi group in Sanaa. They are Abdulkhaleq Amran, Tawfik Al-Mansouri, Akram Alhamidi and Harith Hameed. Houthis say these four worked as spies for foreign powers. It remains unknown when the Houthi ruling will be executed.
From 2015 to December 2021, the YJS documented 1400 violations against the media in Yemen. The violations include kidnapping, murder, prosecution, beating, imprisonment, denying salaries, confiscating properties, death threats and shutting down media outlets.
While all breaches against journalists are inhumane and unjustified, murder is the peak of brutality. Killings of media people have happened every year since 2015. The following figure illustrates the number of journalists killed in Yemen throughout ten years.
Fear, fleeing, and profession change
Yemen ranked 169 on the Press Freedom Index in 2021. The Houthi group, government authorities, southern separatists or Al-Qaeda operatives have oppressed the media in this country.
Local media members can't please all these factions. Accordingly, independent journalists in Yemen feel like they are operating in a landmine field. This reality leaves them with limited options. Some continue their jobs, constantly fearing murder, kidnapping or arrest. Others flee from areas in which they feel at risk. They may continue their careers in the media or shift to another work.
Mohammed, a freelance journalist, used to live in Sanaa two years back. His feeling of insecurity pushed him to move to Taiz province. He told the New Arab, "I was always worried about a potential raid by the Houthis in Sanaa. That affected my psychology and performance. Finally, I travelled to settle in Taiz in 2020. Taiz is not perfectly safe for journalists here, but I feel it is better."
He added," I have not quit my journalism job so far. But I admit that this anti-media environment has ruined my passion for this field and limited my freedom to cover any topic I want. We have no protection from authorities, and occasionally the threat may come from them. Journalism in Yemen is a death job in the field or at the office."
If a journalist does not feel safe, they may try to find a job in another field. Faisal Al-Siraji was a reporter focusing on humanitarian issues in Yemen. The lack of safety and the spread of partisan media forced him to leave his profession. Over the last seven years, he has been selling ice on the street in Sanaa. His current job is unpleasant, but he feels it does not risk his life.
In a previous interview with the Belqees TV channel, Siraji said, "With the outbreak of the war in March 2015, the tragedy of the Yemeni press intensified, and obstacles before journalists increased. Some faced detention, and others opted for immigration or partisan alignment. This coerced many to change their professions and engage in other work."
The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.