Mohammed al-Maqaleh told the Committee to Protect Journalists the government denied it had him in custody for five months, and now, he doesn’t know if charges are still pending.
His crime, if it is one, was reporting on airstrikes that killed dozens of people in the Yemeni government’s ongoing war with Houthi rebels in the north. Al-Maqaleh, the editor of the Aleshteraki website, who was released early this year after being targeted in a government-sponsored abduction, was one of 30 journalists, analysts and attorneys the CPJ spoke to during a nine-day trip to Yemen.
Al-Maqaleh's story is included in a damning special report headlined “In Yemen, brutal repression cloaked in law,” which outlines how Yemen in the last two years has combined “extrajudicial abductions, intimidation, threats and crude censorship” with a quietly constructed legal apparatus to harshly dissuade negative media coverage.
Yemen, which the CPJ says did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, released a denial Friday on its state-run Saba news site, calling the allegations “incorrect and distorted.”
Saba, perhaps tellingly, quoted only an anonymous government source, who said the report’s author, Mohamed Abdel Dayem, met with "malevolent" opposition figures who provided him with false information.
“Today in Yemen there are more than 160 press publications and dozens of media websites and blogs which work within the framework of democracy and freedom of opinion and expression and the practice of criticism, which sometimes exceed all limits,” the source told Saba.
Al-Maqaleh’s story, however, was one of many in the special report.
Salah al-Sadiqi, editor in chief of the Gulf Aden website, was detained for a year without trial for “harming national unity.” Munir Mawari, a contributor to the weekly Al-Masdar, was sentenced in absentia for describing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s leadership style as a “weapon of mass destruction.” The U.S.-based reporter also faces a lifetime ban on practicing journalism in Yemen.
The most disturbing CPJ example of Yemen silencing media is Al-Ayyam, an independent daily that's been in business since 1958. The walls of its Aden offices are scarred by bullets, the CPJ reported, and in May 2009, government agents blockaded the offices so staffers could not get to work and twice confiscated newspapers, 66,500 of them.
"It marked the beginning of a crude publishing ban that remains in effect today," the CPJ reported. “The government siege of the compound … lasted another two weeks, ending only after a firefight between government forces and the paper’s guards left one passerby dead and two guards injured."
The government has fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the office; charged employees with “instigating separatism” and “forming an armed gang”; and arrested the paper’s editors, holding them for months.
The creation of a special court last year to try press offenses promises to worsen matters, journalists and lawyers told the CPJ. Mawari’s lifetime ban marked the press court’s first of about 100 rulings in the last year, and the court also handled a case against Al-Masdar Editor Samir Jubran, who was banned from managing a newspaper for a year.
Several journalists told the CPJ the sentences have sent a strong message to the nation’s press corps, and journalists with pending charges said they keep low profiles in hopes their cases will be dismissed.
Among the laws targeting journalists are bans on denigrating religious sects, “creating fear among the people,” “harming the public good” and insulting the president, which is punishable by up to two years in prison.
Lawmakers are seeking stricter press restrictions, including increasing the maximum prison time for insulting the president to five years, expanding the definition of insult to anything that is “unbefitting or invites sarcasm, mockery, slander or injury” and erecting “prohibitive financial barriers for broadcast and online news outlets,” the CPJ said.
These would be in addition to Yemen’s unwritten “red lines” prohibiting coverage of the war with Houthi rebels, the repression of the opposition Southern Movement, failure to contain al Qaeda and widespread corruption, the watchdog reported.
“Taken together, the government’s longstanding practice of violent repression and its new legalistic tactics are creating the worst climate for press freedom since the country’s unification in 1990, CPJ’s examination has found.”