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Monday, 24 October 2011

‘It’s Hell, I’ll Be Honest With You’

IPI Interview with Yemen Post Editor Hakim Almasmari, on Reporting the Uprising 

By: Interview by Naomi Hunt, IPI Press Freedom Advisor for the Middle East & Africa

Hakim Almasmari, publisher and editor in chief of the Yemen Post. Photo courtesy of the Yemen Post.

VIENNA, 24 Oct. 2011 – Egyptian elections are coming up, Tunisia has voted for its new constitutional assembly, and Libya’s transitional government declared the country free this week.  But in Yemen, the struggle is far from over.  Protestors continue to demonstrate against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has repeatedly refused to concede to opposition demands and leave office.  Since he returned from Saudi Arabia in late September, where he had travelled for medical treatment following an attack, violence has only worsened. More protestors have been killed by pro-Saleh troops. Observers fear that the crisis may turn into a full-scale civil war – just this weekend, only days after the United Nations called on President Saleh to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution, at least twelve people were reportedly killed and many more wounded after fighting broke out in the capital between renegade forces and loyalist troops. 

Amidst the chaos, Yemeni journalists, working to get the story out, are under attack.

IPI spoke with the publisher and chief editor of the Yemen Post, Hakim Almasmari, about the censorship, violence and intimidation that any independent Yemeni media outlet must contend with.

In the past weeks we have seen report after report of journalists and their families receiving threats and facing assault on the streets. Newspapers have been confiscated and their offices burned. Almasmari said that Skype had been “cancelled” since February, when the government found out journalists were using it to conduct interviews. Since Saleh returned on 23 September, four photojournalists have reportedly been killed. But according to Almasmari the international media is still not paying nearly enough attention either to the protestors or to the reporters and cameramen working so bravely to tell their stories.

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IPI: … I’m recording this on Skype so I just need to work out some technical issues…okay it’s working….

H.A.: By the way, Skype was cancelled in Yemen a couple months back. The journalists are not able to use it. […] There were some […] media interviews through Skype in early February so the government stopped that. You cannot connect into Skype from Yemen.

IPI:  What about other communications websites?

H.A.: No, no, since then nothing, I’ll be honest with you.  The only way media can communicate with Yemeni journalists is through phone calls. And sometimes phone calls are censored, number one, and number two, companies have been closed down. SabaFon, a communications company in Yemen that was run by the opposition, was closed down by the government; they are trying to limit all the access to Yemen and it’s one of the reasons that access has been limited for the last nine months.


IPI: Have there been power outages or other communications cuts?


H.A.: It’s a different world. In Yemen right now, and for the last four months, there’s only been one hour of electricity a day. That’s one reason why there are no networks and connections – if you don’t have electricity you can’t have connections or Internet access. What’s also happening is that those who had generators and had no problem with electricity cuts, they used to buy diesel or gasoline, but months later, the government also cut diesel and gasoline services in Yemen by over 80% and that’s made it […]even more difficult to communicate.

IPI: That makes it […] even more amazing that the Yemen Post is online every day with new stories. How do you do that?

H.A.: We have no idea, I’ll be honest with you. But when we have the one hour of electricity we try to do as much as possible during that one hour, and if we are able to get diesel for the generators then we work.  Other than that, it’s impossible to work in Yemen as media and that’s what the government wants – to limit any communications from the world to Yemen.

IPI: Aside from these really basic infrastructure problems, have things become worse? We see reports that four journalists have been killed since Saleh returned to Yemen […]. Has [this] also made life more difficult for journalists?

H.A:  Journalists in Yemen right now are very much in danger. Their work is at risk. Walking in the streets, you’re attacked – even us, at the Yemen Post we get a dozen phone calls every month from the government and opposition leaders – government officials, security officials – threatening  us, and just because of the news we write. It’s chaotic; you can see that the freedom of press in Yemen has deteriorated so much. There’s no government, no law. And when there’s no law, anyone’s life is at risk and that’s why journalists have been killed, four of them, since Saleh came back.  With the absence of law and any government, it’s easy for anyone just to attack a journalist or just to kill him, making this a lesson to others that anyone who goes against a specific group will not be safe.

IPI: The journalists who have been killed over the last month were covering protests. Do you think they were among the protestors, or do you think they were singled out? 

H.A: No, they were singled out for sure. For sure. It’s not only being attacked and being killed, it’s the harassment journalists go through. The tons of phone calls, the tons of visits to the office, the tons of direct address made to them, their kids being at risk of being kidnapped… It’s more a direct threat to journalists; anyone seen with a camera, anyone seen with a recorder, anyone seen with a pen and paper writing down notes is automatically targeted.

IPI: So you’re dealing with power cuts and you’re dealing with harassment and a lot of physical danger, and meanwhile the whole world is looking at the Middle East and North Africa and the Arab world revolutions, and you’re just trying to get the news out. What is that like?

H.A.: It’s hell, I’ll be honest with you. What makes it more difficult is that these harassments go unrecorded or no one cares, basically, because of the different events that are happening in the region. The case of harassment against a journalist, you know, compared to the death of Qaddafi… [Press attacks get little coverage because there are] so many different numerous attacks, so many different problems happening. But the very, very low attention from the media only gives those who are attacking a sign that they have a green light to continue, and [outsiders] will continue to turn a blind eye when it happens.

IPI: So, who is turning a blind eye? Tawwakul Karman, the Yemeni journalist and activist, was one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize awardees. Has that helped to focus more attention on the situation in Yemen? 

H.A:  First of all, no.  The Nobel peace prize winner received her prize for her advocacy and peaceful protest and not for her media work.  It’s sad to see that many of the journalists in Yemen are being attacked, or being forced to be bribed as another option. The international media has been ignoring press freedom in Yemen, even though Yemen is one of the countries in the Middle East where journalists are very courageous and willing to work.  There is not one single foreign journalist in Yemen right now; it’s all local work.  And our government in its efforts to stop any connection with the world [prevents] any network, any TV network, any media outlet, any foreign media journalist from entering the country […] and yet they are still not giving the much-needed attention and support that’s needed.

IPI: The Yemen Post is an English newspaper, so you must be aware that outsiders are looking to your website for information about what’s happening on the ground. Do you feel an increased sense of responsibility?


H.A.: What we did a couple months back is that we started coordination with international media outlets beforehand, because they were not able to enter the country. So we offered our help and our services to them, and we are only demanding – only asking – that they publish our news. We have been working for the last couple of months with tens of media outlets – CNN, NBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post – we are basically volunteering to give them free information; free stories, free reports on what’s happening in Yemen. Our hope is that these stories are published and that they are revealed to the world and that we get more attention and more ears on the Yemeni crisis.

IPI: You and your reporters are right in the thick of it. So how do you as journalists stay objective, and stay fair when you’re covering a situation that impacts you so directly?


HA: First of all, we make sure that our journalists are anonymous, that’s the main thing, which I know sounds weird but that’s how we’re sort of working right now in Yemen. Most of our reporters are anonymous while they’re out in the field.  Before we had the names of journalists on some stories and now we erase the names of all journalists, to make sure that their lives are not threatened. The government has called us a number of times and warned us that they will ban our website and block it from the country, but that has not happened yet for some reason, especially after they found out that more international media outlets, especially some of the top ones around the world, were coordinating with us. So they are trying to find out whom […] we are working with, who is in our network in the country, so they can cut down on the networks rather than cut down the website.  

IPI:  It’s not clear when the end of the conflict will be. What is necessary for the Yemen media to continue to be able to operate?  

H.A.: My point is that the [international] media should not forget Yemen. There’s a revolution going on. There are people being killed, civilians unarmed who are putting their guns and weapons down in protest to demand a peaceful power transfer.  These things should not be ignored. Different revolutions only took less than 40 days; in Yemen it’s now entering its tenth month. The world should not ignore Yemen and should respect that. That is the only way that the current regime will understand that it will be held accountable for its crimes, but if Yemenis continue to be ignored, that gives the green light to those who are against democracy and press freedom to continue in their mission of killing and attacking innocent civilians, and media houses as well.