WHO IS TELLING THE REAL STORY in YEMEN?
I know al-Khaiwani’s dream is shared by many journalists in Yemen. Over the last fifteen years, through training sessions and media development work, I met many Yemeni colleagues who had similar ideas about how media should reflect the ideas of citizens and inform and, thus, empower the people. Many saw media as a tool for improvement and development. In short, journalism was viewed as a tool for creating a better future.
Unfortunately the media is currently failing Yemen. Outside the country, news outlets have either misreported or turned a blind eye toward the war between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, which began in March 2015. Inside the country and regionally, media has become a tool for war and propaganda, instead of a vehicle for transmitting credible information.
Journalism remains vital for Yemen’s future, however. The war will eventually end – and journalism will be critical to the country’s transition to peace.
The War and Media in Yemen
In wars, truth is the first casualty, or so the saying goes. This is certainly true in the case of Yemen’s on-going war. Douglas Hurd, the former British foreign secretary, once said, “The light shone by the media is not the regular sweep of the lighthouse, but a random searchlight directed at the whim of its controllers.” Hurd’s observation is very appropriate when it comes to thinking about the media’s role in Yemen’s war. During the conflict, it has not been the “regular sweep of the lighthouse,” but the random searchlight, very random and very much controlled, that has defined the media coverage.
The war in Yemen has caused one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time. As of the start of 2016, the UN has counted an average of forty-one verified human rights violations per day. Since the start of Saudi-led coalition strikes against the Houthis in March 2015, more than 6,000 people have died, of which about 3000 were civilians. Almost 8 million people have become severely food-insecure, in the terminology of the UN. 3.4 million children are out of school and 80% of Yemenis are in need of some sort of humanitarian assistance. There is a lack of healthcare, clean water, and sanitation for millions of people.
Since the start of the war, the Yemeni economy has declined about 35%. Approximately 25% of all companies have had to close. For many Yemenis, there is no work, no income. According to the UN, 2.4 million Yemenis are displaced in their own country.
Where are the stories in the international media about this humanitarian drama, about the human suffering, about the war, about the siege of Taiz, about the aerial bombardments, the fear, bloodshed and destruction? Where were the breaking news flashes when the coalition air force bombed a market in the northern village of Mastaba in February, killing 120 civilians, including twenty children.
Where are the stories about a cruel war that is militarily unwinnable by any of the participating parties? Where are the background pieces and news analysis about the rise and power of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS in Yemen?
Compared to coverage on Syria’s war, reporting on Yemen’s conflict has been extremely poor and limited. Little airtime is given to the war; very few or no foreign correspondents are visiting the country. Even as the United States gets more deeply involved in the fighting, providing military support and intelligence to the coalition and placing U.S.Special Operations Forces on the ground in Yemen to fight Al Qaeda, it is barely mentioned in the mainstream media.
Why Is the Yemen Conflict Underreported?
The fact that the Yemeni war is so under reported is largely because of difficulties in framing the story. Media researcher, Gadi Wolfsfeld, has noted that, in covering conflicts, reporters and editors have generally behaved, as if they were asking three questions:
- How did we cover this conflict in the past?
- What is the most newsworthy part of the conflict?
- Who are the good guys?
When it comes to Yemen, it is hard to answer all three questions.
As for the first question, Yemen’s various conflicts over the last half-century have regularly been underreported in the global media. Few have ever heard about the Houthis, let alone the different Islamic sects in Yemen. Yemen is a distant land, with a different culture that is difficult to identify with.
In terms of the second question, this is really about how journalists sell their story. Before providing background, details, and analysis, journalists must first understand the most important parts of a story. Is it about democracy, about chasing a dictator, about fighting jihadist terrorists? This is very unclear in the case of Yemen.
Then there is the final question, about the good guys and the bad guys. In Yemen, there seem to be very few good guys around. The Houthis are certainly not the good guys, nor are the tribal leaders. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS could never be the good guys. The Yemeni government based in Riyadh or Aden is hardly free from reproach. In short, there are no heroes in Yemen’s conflict, only villains and victims. It is, as such, a very unattractive war to cover.
On top of all this, Western governments involved in the conflict, like the United States and UK, have little interest in intense media coverage on the war or its humanitarian and regional implications. To put the policies of Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries in the spotlight would be very counter productive for these governments. It could raise questions about human rights violations, the use of lethal weapons against the civilian population, other violations of international humanitarian law, the power and role of arms manufacturers, and the lack of media freedom in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Biased, Domestic and Regional Coverage
In contrast to the international media’s minimal coverage, the war in Yemen is covered intensely by national Yemeni media, as well as news outlets in the Gulf and Arab world. Here the “random searchlight directed at the whim of its controllers” is literally blinding and suffocating.
All parties in the Yemeni war have their own media to disseminate their own narrative. There are two competing Yemen TV’s with the same logo and introductory sequence. One is the original state-owned Yemen TV in Sana’a, which is now in the hands of the Houthis; the other is the pro-Hadi Yemen TV broadcasting from Saudi Arabia. The Saba news agency in Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthis, has a doppelganger in the pro-Hadi Saba agency. The Houthis have their own satellite TV and radio stations and publications. Al-Masirah TV, operating from Beirut and supported by Hezbollah, also broadcasts the Houthi narrative.
This split in Yemen’s media landscape has generated two competing narratives on the conflict. One narrative echoes the rhetoric of Saudi Arabia. The other narrative communicates a more Iranian perspective. Apart from these two narratives, both ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are operating their own sophisticated media propaganda operations. Meanwhile, independent voices are stifled. There is no dialogue. There is no truth.
A Brief Period of Journalistic Renaissance
This was not, however, always the case in Yemen. In the three or four years before the war started, Yemenis enjoyed greater freedom of expression than they probably ever did before. There was a proliferation of new media outlets, especially on the Internet, and a wide range of opinions and political perspectives published in print, on air, and on line. Admittedly, however, many of these new Yemeni media outlets were not very professional and often did not follow the ethical standards of journalism.
It is also true that Yemen’s newfound media freedom was tempered by many incidents of threats and violence against journalists. Even though, in 2012, Yemen passed one of the most advanced access to information bills in the Arab world, the country still did not have a culture of openness and transparency. The media climate was chaotic and journalism remained a dangerous professions. Despite attacks on Yemeni journalists, the authorities rarely condemned or rigorously investigated these incidents
But, still, there was hope. Many young people were determined to reinvent journalism for the good of the country. Civil society was thriving.
Post-Conflict Journalism in Yemen
Since then, Yemen has become a terrible place for journalists. In 2016, Reporters Without Borders ranked Yemen 170 out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. Commenting on the situation facing Yemeni journalists, president of the International Federation of Journalists, Jim Boumelha, said on May 12, 2016: “There is no word to describe the level of fear and atrocities our colleagues in Yemen have to live with. Our jailed colleagues must be set free immediately. Warring parties in Yemen must stop using journalists as weapons in their deadly conflict. Let them report freely and inform the Yemeni people.”
That is indeed exactly what is not happening at the moment. Because of restrictions on journalists, the Yemeni people are not being informed of the “truth” and, what is more,their stories are not being told. Instead, the media in Yemen is a tool of war. Facts are given minor attention. Propaganda is the rule of the day, dominating the public sphere and preventing individuals from expressing and forming their own opinions.
If there is to be a meaningful negotiated settlement to the war, this situation cannot be allowed to continue. Media policy must be a part of the post-conflict equation. After the war ends, the media must be a tool for peace, co-operation, tolerance, and mutual respect.
To ensure this occurs, the following issues must be considered at the appropriate time during peace negotiations:
- the parties should reach an understanding about what constitutes propaganda, especially regarding when it may lead to intolerance, stereotyping, hate, and inciting violence and hostility
- the parties should refrain from funding and using this propaganda
- the parties should commit to freedom of movement and all journalists should be able to access regions affected by armed conflict and receive information from local authorities
- the parties should commit to the principles of media freedom and pluralism
- the parties should allow for an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission with fact-finding capacities to uncover the truth and debunk fabricated stories
Media organizations, journalists, and civil society all have to play a role in rebuilding Yemen. Media freedom is often seen as a human right, a tool for development and good governance, and it surely is. But media freedom and a pluralistic press are also important to reconstituting post-conflict societies, especially in Yemen.
Destroyed mud-briks ancient building in Rahban, the area on the outskirts of Sa’dah city. Most of the houses in the area included on Yemen’s World Heritage Tentative List, were destroyed by several Saudi-led airstrikes in May, 2015.
Yemen war underreported, journalists threatened
In Yemen a humanitarian catastrophe is in the making. The war, which started in March, is getting uglier by the day. Daily air strikes and an air and naval blockade have disrupted normal life completely, caused enormous destruction and left about half of the 26 million Yemenis in need of food and other basic necessities.
We know all this because UN-organizations, humanitarian agencies like MSF and some international news agencies keep informing the world about the tragedy taking place in Yemen. But information is scarce. In fact Yemen has become hard to access for Arab and foreign journalists. Lack of electricity and poorly developed Internet infrastructure are hampering the citizens to use social media as alternative ways of covering the conflict.
The situation in Yemen has been underreported for years, but the current war has exercising journalism almost impossible. Foreign reporters are not allowed into the country since the Saudi-led campaign started. Yemeni journalists face the problem of finding reliable sources in this polarized country and are subjected to violence and mistrust. Saudi’s, their Yemeni allies nor the Houthi’s are open to the idea of independent reporting. All journalists who are not “on their side” are basically treated like enemies.
Last Friday (29th of May) Ali Saleh Sanhan, the manager of Saba News Agency office in Hajja governorate, was kidnapped. According to the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate Sanhan was taken to the Political Security prison in the governorate, a place that was targeted previously by the Saudi-led Arab coalition airstrikes. Ironically the syndicate called on the local and international rights organizations “to pressure the Houthis to find at least safe detention centres or release the detained journalists”. Earlier in May two Yemeni journalists were killed when the coalition bombed the Houthi locations where they were held.
The IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) has urged the Houthi kidnappers to release journalist Ali Saleh Sanhan as soon as possible. For more info see: http://www.ifj.org/nc/news-single-view/backpid/1/article/ifj-and-its-yemeni-union-urge-immediate-release-of-news-agencys-editor/