The difficulties of media in covering the war in Yemen

On January 17 2016, Almigdad Mojalli, a Yemeni freelance reporter, was following the effects of a Saudi airstrike near Sanaa. At that time, he was on a commission from the American television channel Voice of America and there was a photographer with him. A Saudi bomb hit his car, severely injuring Almigdad. His colleague didn’t manage to reach the closest hospital in time to save the journalist’s life.

A poster of Saleh al-Sammad, who heads the Supreme Political Council, is seen on the window of a van carrying people to the site of a rally held to show support to the council in the capital Sanaa August 20, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

During his career, Almigdad had worked for many international outlets, like the Telegraph in England, for which he wrote several articles about the conflict, underlining the responsibilities of the warring sides, Houthis rebels included. Because of his differing  views, the rebels threatened and imprisoned him many times, while he was staying in the capital Sanaa. Thanks to the activities of the Rory Peck Trust, an organization that supports journalists, Almigdad managed to leave the country and seek refugee in Jordan with his family. However, he decided to move back to Yemen to keep following the conflict.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since the Houthi rebels took the capital, thirteen journalists and three media workers have been killed in direct reprisal for their work. Three were murdered while they weren’t even working. Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani was one of them.

Al-Khaiwani was the former editor of the Al-Shoura news website, which was in opposition to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. His antagonism toward the regime cost him many detentions in Sanaa’s prisons. When the Houthi rebels took over and seized the capital, al-Khawaini turned to be one of the major supporters of the new rulers. His alignment with the Houthis could have motivated his assassination. On March 18 2015, the journalist was entering his home when two men on a motorcycle approached and immediately shot him. Afterward, the group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an opponent of the Shia rebels, claimed responsibility for the attack.

When Rab Mansor Hadi became the Yemeni president in 2012, putting an end to the 33-year reign of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the expectations about a big improvement in the freedom of the press  were high. Between 2012 and 2014, many websites, newspapers and television channels proliferated. In an article that appeared in the Guardian, one former editor of Yemen Times,  Mohammed al-Qalisi, recalled that period as “the golden years of Yemeni media”, when censorship didn’t exist and anyone could say anyything about politics without retaliation.

However, the conflict between the Houthi rebels and Hadi’s forces halted the progress. In the territories under Houthi control, the media can’t freely decide what to cover and what to publish. The system just operates under the rebels’s guidelines. The new government uses arbitrary detention and threats to inhibit journalists from working independently. At least a dozen journalists are detained in Sanaa’s prisons today. In May 2016, eleven prisoners went on hunger strike to protest against their conditions. Their families approached Mwatana, an human rights organization, which started a campaign to draw attention to how the Houthi government deals with media, drawing the attention of international actors. This seemed to come to fruition and during the second round of peace talks held in Kuwait, the belligerents also focused on the release of prisoners.

“However, just the ordinary criminals were released. The journalists and the activists are still held by the two sides” explained Laura Silvia Battaglia, freelance journalist and Yemen expert. Laura has been covering the conflict since the beginning. Thanks to her family visa, she has been able to move in and out the country.

Nowadays, no foreign journalists are on the ground to document the war. “Authorities from both sides don’t let foreign correspondents in. Just Yemenis and their families. Moreover, there is just one air company that has flights into the country, which is Yemenia airways. It doesn’t accept any online booking or any non-Yemenis passengers. Also, you have to pay cash.”

Once in the field, there are no contacts to rely on. The vast majority of NGOs no longer operate due to the threats and almost everyone who can speak English or another foreign language has left for Jordan or Europe.

“Even if you manage to land in Sanaa or in Aden and the authorities don’t turn you away, travelling across the country is risky and difficult.The chances of being kidnapped by al-Qaeda or ordinary thugs remain high.”

Without international media reporting from the country, only Yemeni journalists can gather news. However, they work with limited autonomy and the spectre of being imprisoned or worse is always upon them.

“It depends on where you are. If you’re coving news from Houthi controlled areas, you’ll put more emphasis on the terrible Saudi bombings. While if you work in Aden, you will target the Houthi atrocities. In the government forces’ zones, al-Jazeera and al-Arabya also operate. The first one supports the Muslim Brotherhood, while the second one supports the policy of the Gulf states. The bottom line is: unbiased is an illusion.”

So far, the warring sides have demonstrated that they are not willing to come to terms and end the war soon. With more and more civilians suffering and paying the highest price for the situation, the only hope seems to lie in raising awareness in international public opinion. However, without fresh news coming from the front line and without impartial outlets and professionals working in the field, this is unlikely to happen in the short term.

@matteo_lat

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