How war has handcuffed journalism in Yemen

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Last month, Reporters Without Borders [RSF], an independent NGO focusing on defending and promoting journalistic freedom and independence worldwide, released its annual report concerning press freedom in the world. Yemen ranked 168th out of 180 countries in 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

Over the last five years, journalists have been killed, held hostage or forcibly disappeared. According to the RSF’s report, two journalists were killed in Yemen in last year between January 1 to December 1. Since the beginning of the war in 2015, 15 journalists remain hostage mainly in the Houthi-held areas.  

Though eight journalists were killed in 2018, only two have lost their lives this year. However, this does not mean violence has ebbed away or peace has thrived in the country.

1a1565516a.jpg The dire security situation and the apparent perils have compelled journalists to take less risks or entirely shun this profession 47c154f91c.jpg

The dire security situation and the apparent perils have compelled journalists to take less risks or entirely shun this profession. Consequently, the year 2019 has seen a smaller number of victims.

"Last year's less deadly toll in Yemen is above all indicative of a decline in reporting activity by Yemeni journalists rather than any let-up in the fighting. Fewer and fewer Yemeni journalists are able to work with acceptable security conditions," the report said.

Mohammed Abdu, a Taiz-based journalist, told The New Arab that the year 2019 has been severe for Yemeni journalists and the press environment gets worse as the war goes on.

"The war has made Yemen one of the worst places for journalists. This year has been a tough year for media workers in comparison to the last four years.

"While dozens have been killed or detained since 2015, hundreds have been experiencing tough living conditions because they fear the consequences of operating in an anti-press environment," said Abdu.

He added, "Journalists have lost their jobs. Some of them have managed to find alternative opportunities and live safely. Today, the vast majority of Yemen's journalists, especially those inside the country, prefer to be silent. It is just an adventure to work as an unbiased reporter in a nation where reporting could be treated as espionage."

According to the RSF’s 2019 report, risks have increased to the point that many journalists have stopped working.

"A former editor for the newspaper Al Tafaseel now sells second-hand goods. A former reporter for the daily Al-Thawra is now working as a restaurant waiter in the capital Sanaa. A journalist who used to work for the newspaper Akhbar al-Youm is now selling ice," said the report.

Yemen has been riven by a deadly war over the last five years. The media sector has seen a tough time and reporting has been a risky job in line with the rise of the militias and the collapse of the state.

The Houthi group, the separatist in the south and al-Qaeda operatives have undermined the existence of the government, creating a hostile climate for the press in the country.

Fouad Mossed, a Yemeni journalist, told The New Arab that the risk attached to the journalistic profession in 2019 year is an extension of the previous four years.

"Journalists do not operate in a risk-free environment in different provinces. These tough times facing journalists are due to the deteriorating security situation and the rise of militias that have the upper hand. These militias do not care about the harm they bring to journalists," said Mossed.

Turning into a life-threatening job, many journalists have now escaped the country.

leftQuots.png Turning into a life-threatening job, many journalists have now escaped the country rightQuots.png

"The security situation has obliged many media workers to flee and many others do not dare to engage in any journalistic activity. The country is divided and journalists have borne the brunt of these divisions," said Mossed.  

While traditional reporting is risky, investigative journalism carries even higher risks.

Adel Abdulmughni, a Yemeni journalist and the director of the Mansa Foundation for Media and Development Studies, told The New Arab that making investigative reports in Yemen is "fraught with numerous challenges and risks."

"Journalists could be exposed to detention, kidnapping or even killed if they cover thorny issues such as uncovering corruption cases, money-laundering, weapons trade or any other issue which the warring sides deem as red lines not to be approached," said Abdulmughni.

The five-year long war in Yemen has fragmented the country. The Houthis have been the de facto authority in the north since their takeover of Sanaa in September of 2014. The south is split between the southern separatist and the government. 

Abdulmughni pointed out that the lack of access to information and documents and the difficult mobility between the Yemeni provinces are examples of the major issues facing investigative reporters in the country.

Neutral reporting in Yemen is a demanding task nowadays. When the reporters live in the north, they cannot criticise the Houthis who run the bulk of Yemen’s north. If reporters are in the south, they are cautious of criticising the government or the southern separatists. They watch their words because they feel they are under continued surveillance.  

"Presently, covering stories professionally and neutrally is challenging. Even if the journalists dare to write stories, they would not favour to reveal their identities. This climate of fear will not change unless the war stops and unless a strong state protects the media freedom," Abdu said.

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

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