The February 26, 2011 version of this news release incorrectly reported that police arrested 18 journalists from the newspaper Al-Yaqeen in Aden on February 18, and incorrectly attributed that information to the Committee to Protect Journalists. (A different international nongovernmental organization was the source of information). Human Rights Watch subsequently ascertained in interviews that police confiscated Al-Yaqeen's print run that day, and that four reporters who were detained in Aden around that time were not from Al-Yaqeen.
The news release has been corrected accordingly.
(Sanaa) - State security forces have participated in or stood by during brutal attacks on journalists covering the February 2011 demonstrations against Yemen's president, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces or armed supporters of the president have beaten or harassed at least 31 international and Yemeni journalists in an effort to quash reporting on the protests.
"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," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Yemeni authorities should halt these attacks and promptly bring assailants, including security officials, to justice."
Human Rights Watch interviewed five journalists who were attacked by security forces or as security officials watched. Human Rights Watch also obtained information on 20 incidents of attacks, detention, or harassment of journalists from the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, and additional cases from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.
The journalists who were attacked represented media including the Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera satellite television channels; Al-Quds al-Arabi and the Guardian newspapers; news agencies including the BBC, The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse; and news websites including Bern-based Swissinfo and Yemen's Marib Press.
Human Rights Watch said the attacks are part of an escalating crackdown on the media by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's security forces, who have harassed, beaten, or illegally detained scores of journalists over the past two years for independent or critical coverage. A government spokesman did not return repeated requests for comment.
Many of the attacks during February 2011 anti-government demonstrations took place at or near the main square at Sanaa University, the central gathering place for anti-Saleh protesters in the capital. In one incident, Abd al-Karim Sallam, a reporter for Swissinfo, said three plainclothes security agents attacked him while he was taking a bus to the protests around 9:30 p.m. on February 20, because they overhead him and a colleague describe pro-government protesters as "thugs."
"We can always recognize them by their style and haircuts," Sallam, who was hospitalized from the attack and days later still wore a bandage on his left cheek, said of the security agents. "As soon as we mentioned the thugs moving toward the square, one of them started talking to us very aggressively, saying, ‘You are the thugs; it's all your fault; you journalists are destroying the country.' I tried to talk to them, but one of them just punched me in the face with a heavy blow, then got my head into a lock with his arm, and then all three of them started beating me on the head and back."
When the bus stopped, the agents "started shouting to the thugs who were nearby to come and get us, but we managed to jump out and escape," Sallam said.
In another incident, the head of the country's US-funded Counter-Terrorism Unit and a specialized police officer in plainclothes failed to intervene in attacks on three television journalists at Sanaa University square the night of February 18.
Al-Arabiya's Sanaa bureau chief Hamoud Munasser, his cameraman Fu'ad al-Khadhr, and freelancer Muhammad Sa'id al-Sharabi told Human Rights Watch that their ordeal began when a mob beat them with sticks and took their camera. Munasser and al-Khadhr still had visible bruises on their arms and legs a few days later.
Al-Khadhr said that as he was filming, he suddenly saw about 200 government supporters armed with stones and sticks rush toward demonstrating students. Munasser said about 20 men who diverted from the larger group began "violently beating [al-Khadhr] on the head and all over his body with sticks" before attacking him.
"I grabbed the camera and ran to try to lead the thugs away from al-Khadhr, but they quickly caught up with me," Munasser said. "They grabbed the camera, tore off the screen and the lens, and pulled it out of my hands."
As the three journalists fled toward their nearby car, Munasser spotted the director of the Yemeni Counter-Terrorism Unit, a US-funded division of the Interior Ministry, whom he knew. The counterterrorism official called the interior minister on his cell phone and let Munasser describe the attack, but the minister dismissed the incident as "impossible," before ultimately promising to investigate, Munasser said.
Meanwhile, about five of the assailants caught up with the journalists and began smashing their car with sticks and stones. The counterterrorism director, accompanied by a plainclothes official who Munasser recognized as a member of the Criminal Investigation Department, saw the attack but did not stop it, Munasser said. He said the interior minister told him three days later that he could not find the attackers.
In a third incident, a plainclothes security officer watched and spoke into a radio as a group of government supporters attacked Muhi al-Din Jarma, who reports for London-based Al-Quds and Yemeni newspapers. Jarma, who suffered head injuries and internal bleeding from the attack, told Human Rights Watch he fled the university square the night of February 17 when government supporters began throwing rocks at demonstrators. A group of 9 or 10 men chased him and beat him with sticks until he began bleeding profusely.
"He [the plainclothes policeman] watched them beating me for some time, but then approached, told them, ‘Enough,' and led me toward an ambulance," Jarma said. "For a moment, I felt safe, but then I saw that the ambulance was also surrounded by government supporters with sticks. The officer led me closer to the crowd and just left me there. The thugs immediately attacked me again, and kept beating me with sticks and kicking me as I was trying to make my way to the ambulance.
In addition to attacks at protests, police confiscated the press run of the newspaper Al-Yaqeen in Aden on February 18, the paper's editor told Human Rights Watch. The newspaper had reported on the anti-government demonstrations in detail and named the protesters who were killed or injured.
The Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate sent the Ministry of Interior details of each attack it documented, requesting an investigation, the union's secretary general, Marwan Dammaj, told Human Rights Watch. So far, the ministry has not responded, Dammaj said, adding that "At most, they refer the cases to the police to investigate."
Freedom of expression is a basic human right, set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Yemen has been a party to the ICCPR since 1987. Article 19 guarantees all individuals the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media."
Saleh on February 23 promised to prevent clashes at anti-government demonstrations and protect the right to freedom of expression.
"Saleh needs to make good on his promise to protect journalists and peaceful protesters," said Whitson. "Security is not a justification for muzzling free speech or curtailing other basic human rights."
Reporters Attacked, Harassed or Injured During February 2011 Anti-Government Demonstrations
Sources: Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RWB)
1. Khalil al-Berh, detained for half-hour in car by security officials, digital camera confiscated and returned with memory deleted, Sanaa, February 13. [YJS, CPJ]
2. Khalid al-Mahdi, photographer for Reuters, detained and camera confiscated, Sanaa, February 13. [YJS, CPJ]
3. Hani al-Ansi, photographer for The Associated Press, camera confiscated, Sanaa, February 13. [YJS, CPJ]
4. Wajdi Assalmi, of Hadith al-Madina newspaper, beaten by armed men and camera destroyed, Sanaa, February 13. [YJS, CPJ]
5. Samia al-Aghrabi, fell and injured head while fleeing armed men, February 13. [YJS, CPJ]
6. Abdallah Gorab, correspondent for the BBC, beaten with sticks by men armed with knives and guns, Sanaa, February 14. Attackers brought Gorab to Yemeni government official Hafez Meiyad, an associate of the president, who rebuked him for tarnishing Yemen's reputation, the BBC reported. [YJS, CPJ, BBC]
7. Mohamed Omran, cameraman for BBC, beaten and watch stolen in same attack as Abdallah Gorab, Sanaa, February 14. [CPJ, BBC]
8. Majid Shuaibi, Mareb Press, attacked and camera confiscated by armed men, Sanaa, February 14. [YJS]
9. Salah Saleh, beaten and detained at demonstration, Taizz, February 15. [YJS]
10. Hassan al-Watat, beaten by armed men, February 16. [CPJ]
11. Ahmed Ghrasi, photographer for Agence France-Presse, beaten and camera confiscated, Sanaa, February 17. [YJS, CPJ]
12. Yahya Arhab, European Pressphoto Agency, attacked and camera confiscated, Sanaa, February 17. [YJS, CPJ]
13. Adel Abdulmughni, reporter for Al-Wahdawi newspaper, attacked and camera confiscated, Sanaa, February 17. [YJS, CPJ]
14. Amr Awd, Reuters, beaten and camera confiscated, Sanaa, February 17. [YJS, CPJ]
15. Samir al-Namri, al-Jazeera, beaten and camera destroyed, Sanaa, February 17. [YJS, CPJ]
16. Muhi al-Din Jarma, reporter for Al-Quds, suffered severe head injuries and internal bleeding after beating by armed men while a plainclothes policeman watched, Sanaa, February 17. [HRW, YJS]
17. Akram al-Talyae, verbally abused, physically assaulted and camera confiscated, Sanaa, February 17. [YJS]
18. Tom Finn, correspondent for the Guardian, attacked by a group of men in Sanaa, February 17. [RWB]
19. Yasser al-Ma'amari, photographer for al-Qatariya, no further details, Sanaa, February 18. [RWB]
20. Hamoud Munasser, Sanaa bureau chief for Al-Arabiya, beaten with sticks by armed men, Sanaa, February 18. Car attacked by same group in front of director of US-funded Counterterrorism Unit and a Central Investigation Department official. [HRW, YJS, RWB]
21. Fu'ad al-Khadhr, cameraman for Al-Arabiya, beaten and camera seized by armed men in Sanaa, February 18. [HRW, YJS, RWB]
22. Muhammad Sa'id al-Sharabi, freelance reporter, attacked by men armed with sticks, Sanaa, February 18. [HRW]
23. Abd al-Qawi al-Soufi: Al-Arabiya cameraman, beaten by pro-government supporters and his camera broken, February 18. [CPJ]
24. Awsan al-Qaatabi, correspondent for Iran's al-Alam TV, attacked, Sanaa, February 18. [YJS, RWB]
25. Yasser al-Maamari, cameraman for Qatar TV, attacked, Sanaa, February 18. [RWB]
26. Abd al-Karim Sallam, a correspondent for Swissinfo, attacked by armed men as a plainclothes government security officer watched, subsequently hospitalized, Sanaa, February 20. [HRW, YJS, RWB]
27. Zaki Saqladi, correspondent for al-Masdar Online, attacked, car and camera seized, ad-Dali, February 22. [RWB]
28. Marzouq Yasin, freelance journalist, detained by security forces while covering protest, Aden, February 25. [CPJ]
29. Abdel Rahman Anis, freelance journalist, detained by security forces while covering protest, Aden, February 25. [CPJ]
30. Bassim al-Shaabi, freelance journalist, detained by security forces while covering protest, Aden, February 25. [CPJ]
31. Fares al-Jalal, freelance journalist, detained by security forces while covering protest, Aden, February 25. [CPJ]