The media’s ability to report on this harsh reality is severely limited by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime. There are only a handful of independent newspapers in Yemen, and no independent television. The government and main opposition parties, whose own newspapers dominate the market with partisan coverage of political achievements, control printing presses and distribution networks. Independent journalists struggle to make a living, largely due to the chronic lack of investment and a restrictive advertising bias against the free press.
“President Saleh once said that ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes because of how dangerous and tricky the country is. I can tell you that being a journalist in Yemen is also like dancing on the heads of snakes! Self censorship is everywhere: we can’t report on the president, on the heads of opposition, etc., so we consult amongst colleagues and write in ambiguous ways.”
The sentiments expressed by a Sana’a-based journalist were echoed repeatedly to the WAN-IFRA led international delegation that visited Yemen late last year. Together with media experts from the International Federation of Journalists, International Media Support, and Article 19, WAN-IFRA met with media professionals across the spectrum – government, opposition and independent -- who revealed their growing frustration at government restrictions on covering stories of real concern.
Yemen is often viewed by much of the world as a haven for terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A few days before WAN-IFRA’s mission, the country was in the international spotlight after parcel bombs made and sent from Sana’a were discovered onboard US-bound cargo planes. President Saleh has been successful in using the terrorist threat to divert the world’s attention from the many other pressing issues that threaten his country.
The country is riven with rebellions in the north and growing discontent from a southern population that feels economically and socially marginalised. The Yemeni state must also deal with the country’s traditional tribal system, which forces the state into perpetual negotiation to ensure national control. It is widely believed that President Saleh regularly pays to keep the tribal leaders in line, putting added pressure on the country's limited resoures and threatening the future stability of the regime, its institutions, and the country as a whole.
These political power struggles are being played out against a backdrop of crippling social problems: 35% unemployment, 45% of the population living below the poverty line. Oil is running out and – even more alarmingly – so is water, unless solutions are found to keep the capital's 1.9 million residents protected from drought. The cultivation of khat – a plant chewed by an estimated 90 percent of the male population that produces amphetamine-like effects -- takes up most of the arable land, uses over 30% of the country’s water, and has enormous implications for public health.
The Yemeni press has been powerless to break the silence surrounding these issues with any regularity. The government has made extrajudicial mechanisms the norm when dealing with undesirable elements within media, building a parallel legal system through which it legitimises acts of intimidation and harassment against those it deems too critical of the regime. This system too often criminalises journalists and deters investigative inquiry.
Repercussions from the Tunisian revolution at the beginning of January reached Yemen with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets demanding President Saleh step down. As governments across the Arab region adjust to the new political reality created by this wave of public anger, it is hoped that greater freedoms and political representation will take root. With seasoned and typical wariness, it is a situation that has left many Yemeni journalists looking for a miracle, not just a revolution, to provide the answer.