(New York) - Yemen's government should immediately cease attacks on independent newspapers and scrap plans for a special court to try media cases, Human Rights Watch said today.
"These actions are a clear effort to silence independent voices in Yemen," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "President Abdullah Ali Saleh needs to end this campaign of intimidation and censorship."
On May 12, 2009, government soldiers in the southern port city of Aden stormed the headquarters of al-Ayyam, the country's most popular daily, as demonstrators outside the building protested a week-old publication ban on the paper and seven other Yemeni publications. At least two security guards were reported killed in an exchange of gunfire, with each side blaming the other.
Yemen's information minister had banned publication of the papers on the grounds that their reporting was "harming national unity." The papers had been reporting on recent, deadly clashes between government troops and protesters demanding more resources for the country's impoverished south.
Al-Ayyam delivery trucks were seized and set on fire May 1 and May 3 by people the paper described as government sympathizers. In the following days, security forces also arrested a blogger and the editor of a web site in the southern province of Hadhramaut.
The new media court was authorized Wednesday by the Supreme Judicial Council, an administrative body affiliated with the Justice Ministry. The ministers of justice and information said it would open on May 16 to hear media cases swiftly and "protect all sides' rights."
However, Yemen has previously prosecuted journalists critical of the government in proceedings that fall short of international fair-trial standards. Last year, one prominent journalist was convicted of terrorism - but subsequently pardoned - for reporting on civilian casualties by military forces during clashes with minority Zaidis in the north. Other journalists have been detained by security agents. On February 12, 2008, unidentified gunmen attacked al-Ayyam's offices in the capital, Sana'a, after the paper covered previous unrest in the south.
"Yemen's history of harassing journalists raises serious questions about the judicial council's motives," Whitson said.
Yemen is a party the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, both of which guarantee the right to freedom of expression.
"We urge Yemeni government authorities to investigate these incidents thoroughly and to allow freedom of expression," Whitson said.