Journalists’ organisations and media-monitoring bodies have denounced a draft press and publications law, which they say doesn’t go far enough to protect journalists from ill-defined media violations.
“The draft in its current form has been totally rejected by the journalist community,” said Said Thabet, deputy chairman of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS). “We’ve looked it over, and it doesn’t meet even the minimum of what journalists want.”
While the draft law – which is still being debated in the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of parliament) – would prohibit prison sentences for journalistic offences, it is still seen by members of the media as containing a number of wide-ranging restrictions. “We’ve set outlines for any new law, including the liberation of the broadcast media from the dominance of the government,” said Thabet. “Our problem isn’t just imprisonment of journalists.”
The planned revision of the 1990 Law on Press and Publications was set in motion in 2004 when President Ali Abdullah Saleh called for the abolition of prison sentences for press-related offences. Under current legislation, journalists can be jailed for up to two years if they publish anything perceived by the authorities as damaging to the head-of-state or to other Arab leaders.
But while the draft law eliminates jail-time for publication offences, it imposes a YR100,000 (about US $5,000) fine in its stead – a sum 10 times higher than the monetary penalty stipulated in the current law.
Minister of Information Hassan al-Lawzi denied reports that the new draft would impose new press restrictions. “The draft law is meant to expand the scope of freedoms,” he said. “The rising number of lawsuits filed against the media is a good indication of the increasing awareness of those damaged by journalists on how to protect their rights.”
The proposed legislation would also prevent the information ministry from halting the distribution of a given publication except by court verdict.
Mohammed al-Tayib, chairman of the Shura Council Committee of Rights and Liberties, said that council committees were still summarising the views of various political parties and NGOs. “We’ll send the draft to the YJS for discussion and submit their opinions on it,” he said. After the Shura council’s approval, the draft will be sent to parliament for ratification.
Local and international rights groups have complained that last year witnessed rising numbers of government violations against local journalists, many of whom were reportedly subject to intimidation and harassment. Many reporters have also been put on trial under questionable circumstances.
In the latest incidents Abed Al-Mahthari, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Al-Deyar remains in hiding after escaping an armed attack on him on 19 April, according to the Vienna based International Press Institute (IPI). The editor has been reporting on issues such as trafficking of arms and corruption in the government.
Additionally, on 26 April, the Al-Wasat weekly newspaper released a statement saying that it was concerned over the treatment of editor Jamal Amer. He was kidnapped on 23 August 2005 by armed men who threatened to kill him if his newspaper did not stop publishing reports on corruption and alleged government abuse of power. More recently a security officer visited his home and asked questions about the family’s apartment and children’s schools, according to IPI.
"At least two dozen outspoken Yemeni journalists have been assaulted, imprisoned or subjected to spurious criminal lawsuits in the past two years, signalling a dangerous escalation in the government's crackdown on the country's independent and opposition press," noted the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a 9 March report on the media in Yemen. "Witnesses and evidence point to involvement by government forces and state agents in a number of recent assaults."
The CPJ report added: “The assailants remain at large, the government has shown little evidence it is seriously investigating and public officials have not spoken out against the violence.”
Following a government decision to withdraw the licenses of three independent newspapers for reproducing the controversial Danish cartoons, the London-based “Article 19” organisation, devoted to freedom of expression issues, conveyed its disappointment. “The latest measures taken by the government cast fresh doubts on the country’s continued commitment to its reform agenda,” the organisation said in a 10 February statement.
According to local NGO Women Journalists without Constraints (WJWC), over 50 abuses and attacks targeting the media were reported last year. “What distinguishes 2005 is that a lot of media institutions were attacked and newspapers closed,” noted the WJWC in a 2005 annual report. “Many journalists were abducted, beaten up, jailed or threatened... without any investigations from the government.”
Despite these deterrents, Thabet said that independent newspapers were still able to address contentious issues, such as official corruption. “Private and party newspapers have achieved concrete successes in criticising corruption issues,” he said. “This has raised public awareness about fighting corruption and the wrongdoings of government officials.”
Privatisation of broadcast media
Despite the success of print media in addressing important issues, however, their role in influencing public opinion is still limited, say some observers. “The influence of the print media isn’t that big because of the wide rate of illiteracy,” said Thabet. “Whereas state-run radio and TV is of wide reach and influence – this is why we’ve been calling for privatisation of the broadcast media.”
According to government statistics, almost 50 percent of the population between the ages of 10 and 45 suffer from illiteracy. Among men, the number hovers at 30 percent; for women it exceeds 67 percent.
While newspapers can be independently owned, the most widely circulated broadsheets seldom print over 30,000 copies per issue, in a country population of some 18 million, according to Ministry of Information data. The state still monopolises ownership of broadcast media, meanwhile, which enjoys a wide reach due to both high illiteracy rates and limited newspaper distribution.
The state runs two TV channels, eight radio stations and eight newspapers.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions