(Sanaa) – Yemeni authorities should immediately return the broadcasting equipment of the private TV station Yemen Today and permit it to resume broadcasting. Military forces raided the station, owned by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, on June 11, 2014, following its coverage of protests in the streets of Sanaa, the capital.
“Media freedom means covering the news, including presenting diverse views, even if the station owner is former president Saleh,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Silencing the media betrays a commitment to human rights that Yemenis have demanded from the new government.”
The raid and confiscation of equipment at Yemen Today appears to have been carried out without legal basis and involved excessive use of force, Human Rights Watch said. Muhammad al-`Omaisi, the director of Yemen Today, told Human Rights Watch that on June 11 a source in the Interior Ministry phoned him to say that unnamed authorities had decided to shut down the station. Two hours later, al-`Omaisi said, his office director called saying that 10 to 15 armed military vehicles had surrounded the station and a helicopter was circling overhead.
Mahyoub al-Hammadi, the station’s news director, was at the station during the raid. He told Human Rights Watch that Presidential Guards stormed in and, without presenting any document or explanation, began to seize all equipment in the TV station building including cameras, computers, cables, broadcasting devices, video recordings, and even staff members’ personal cell phones and laptops. He heard another staff member ask several soldiers which authority had ordered the raid, but they did not respond.
Samia al-Hajri, a reporter for the station, told Human Rights Watch that she witnessed a colleague trying to photograph a soldier during the raid. She said a soldier pointed a gun at the colleague’s head and said, “Unless you want a bullet in your head, stop photographing.”
The state-owned Al Thawra (The Revolution) newspaper on June 12 sought to justify the government raid: “Yemen Today TV incited hatred and violence and jeopardized social peace, thereby constituting a threat to the state’s security and stability.” An adviser to President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, Faris al-Sakkaf, stated in a TV interview that the channel sought to “incite chaos.” He did not point to any specific language or programming that amounted to incitement to violence.
Al-Hammadi said that the shutdown occurred after the station broadcasted scenes of protesters filling the streets of Sanaa to protest extensive water and electricity shortages.
Al Thawra also alleged that Yemen Today had been unlicensed since it began broadcasting in January 2012. Al-‘Omaisi confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the station is not licensed, but Yemen currently has no legal framework for registering private TV stations, as an audiovisual bill is pending before parliament. Abd al-Baset al-Qa`idi, director of the Office of the Minister of Information, told Human Rights Watch that Yemen Today is functioning in the same way as all other private TV stations. He said that the ministry had no information about the incident, and had only heard of the shutdown via the media.
The right to freedom of expression is protected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, both of which Yemen has ratified. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that provides authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR, has stated that restrictions on free expression for reasons of national security be set out in law, be proportionate to meet a legitimate aim, and be “necessary in a democratic society,” that is, respecting the basic democratic values of pluralism and tolerance. Any such restrictions must be interpreted narrowly and “not put in jeopardy the right itself.”
In a separate incident, Muhammad al-Qadhi, a reporter for London-based Sky News, told Human Rights Watch that on June 12, 2014, he was on a street in Sanaa photographing passers-by for a piece about the Muslim holiday Ramadan. A soldier approached him, ordered him to stop taking photos, and tried to confiscate his camera. Al-Qadhi says he refused to hand over his camera. The soldier finally let him go, al-Qadhi said, adding that the soldier told him that given the tense atmosphere caused by the protests, troops apparently had orders to stop all journalists from reporting in the streets that day.
In May, the government prevented Al Jazeera reporters from covering the ongoing fighting in the governorates of Abyan, Shabwa, and al-Bayda.
The incidents indicate an escalation of government restrictions on media coverage in the country since President Hadi took office in early 2012. A September 2013 Human Rights Watch report documented attacks on journalists in Yemen – including by state security forces – under the Hadi government.
“The recent incidents against the media suggest that President Hadi’s government is more and more willing to suppress media freedoms in Yemen,” Stork said.