(Sanaa) – A surge of attacks on journalists since a new president took office in Yemen may overwhelm the recent progress toward freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While the government of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi has eased controls on the media as part of broader human rights reforms, it has neither denounced nor prosecuted harassment, threats and assaults by government and private actors against journalists, bloggers, and other critics.
The 45-page report, “‘A Life-Threatening Career’: Attacks on Journalists under Yemen’s New Government,” finds that while Yemenis generally enjoy greater freedom of expression since Hadi replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh as president in February 2012 after three decades of rule, this newfound freedom has been tempered by a rising incidence of threats and violence against the media. In the past, Yemeni journalists faced harassment from government security forces, but they now face threats from other quarters too, including supporters of the former government, Huthi rebels, southern secessionists and religious conservatives.
“President Hadi’s failure to address the attacks on Yemeni journalists not only denies them justice, but makes the media as a whole afraid of further and more serious attacks,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.“If the advances in free speech are to have a real and lasting impact on Yemeni society, the government should condemn and rigorously investigate all attacks on journalists and ensure those responsible are brought to justice.”
During visits to Yemen between February and April 2013, Human Rights Watch researchers documented 20 attacks on journalists. In one case, an outspoken journalist, Wagdy al-Shabi, 28, was murdered in his home in Aden in February, along with a friend. Al-Shabi’s wife heard gunshots in the room where her husband and his friend were talking. “I saw two men wearing civilian dress and military vests with guns,” she said. “They saw me and started shooting in my direction, but I was able to escape to the bedroom and hid with my children.” No arrests have been made in the case.
In other cases, journalists alleged that members of the security forces or of groups they may have criticized assaulted them or issued death threats. The editor of a journal, Ahmed Said Nasser, 35, said that he received many threats after his publication implicated former president Saleh in a 1977 political killing. “If you do not stop investigating this file,” he was warned over the phone, “you will be assassinated.”
Another journalist, Hamdi Radman, 33, said that when he photographed army troops dispersing protesters in December 2012, three soldiers approached and began hitting him with batons. “They kept hitting me,” he told Human Rights Watch. One soldier then “cocked his gun and fired in the air in my direction.”
In all 20 cases Human Rights Watch examined, the journalists or the Journalists’ Syndicate had lodged complaints with the relevant Yemeni authorities. Yet, the authorities either did not conduct a serious investigation or, at best, responded slowly and ineffectually. No one has been successfully prosecuted in any of the cases. Yemeni journalists told Human Rights Watch that the lack of accountability is having a chilling effect on the media as a whole, causing anxiety and self-censorship.
Statistics compiled by the Freedom Foundation, a local group that monitors press freedom in Yemen, indicate the scale of the threat facing journalists. In 2012, thefoundation documented 260 separate incidents involving acts against journalists and the media ranging from threats and harassment to enforced disappearance and attempted murder. The government also prosecuted 19 journalists in 2012 for their writings, including some on criminal defamation charges, which can result in prison terms. In the first half of 2013, the Freedom Foundation recorded 144 attacks and other hostile acts against journalists, newspapers and other media outlets. During the same period, the government accused 74 journalists in 55 separate cases of violating the 1990 Press and Publications Law or other provisions, including criminal defamation charges.
Khaled al-Hammadi, a prominent journalist, told Human Rights Watch that a January attempt by the Defense Ministry to vilify him had caused consternation among other journalists, who feared that if someone of his standing could be so publicly targeted they too could be vulnerable. “They feel that since the government [verbally] assaulted me, a well-known journalist in Yemen and in the international community, maybe they will be too,” he said. “Especially young journalists who are not wealthy or well-connected, now they avoid sensitive cases.”
Journalists face particular risks when reporting on corruption, which is a widespread and entrenched problem in Yemen. Human Rights Watch is aware of two cases in which journalists were prosecuted for defamation for reporting on officials implicated in corruption schemes.
Senior Yemeni officials told Human Rights Watch in meetings in the capital, Sanaa, in February that Yemen’s political insecurity and instability remained the greatest challenge for the new Hadi administration. They said this hampered their efforts to investigate attacks, not only on journalists, but also against their own security officers and government ministers. A few officials accused the Yemeni media of lacking professionalism and harming the country’s political transition, as if to justify the attacks against them.
The Yemeni government should condemn all attacks on journalists. Carry out prompt, transparent and impartial investigations into the attacks, and bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said. The Yemeni parliament should amend or revoke laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression and the media, and abolish the Specialized Press and Publications Court, which has unfairly prosecuted and imprisoned journalists on criminal charges.
In early September Human Rights Watch was informed that the prime minister issued a decree to establish a committee to respond to a list of questions sent by Human Rights Watch in June 2013 based on its findings. The committee is headed by a deputy within the Ministry of Human Rights and includes representatives from the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Legal Affairs. The committee held its first meeting on September 4. Human Rights Watch said that the creation of the committee is an important step to cooperating in investigating its findings, and it should have the institutional support not only to respond to the questions, but also to investigate the situation more broadly and to recommend and implement real and lasting changes to improve media freedom in Yemen.
“Merely removing legal restrictions on free speech is not enough to ensure that Yemeni journalists can do their job,” Stork said. “Yemen’s government needs to be much more active in ensuring that journalists don’t have to constantly look over their shoulder to protect themselves.”