The escalation of the war in Yemen marks its second anniversary this March. In just two years, the Saudi-led military campaign against its neighbour has caused the deaths of more than 10,000 innocent Yemenis, and driven three million people out of their homes.
The conflict has had an impact on local journalists too, as the two warring factions have sought to control the media narrative and silence critical voices. As those closest to the story tell Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), being a journalist in Yemen today means working under constant pressure, censorship and threats to your life.
Nabeel Al-Osaidy, the head of the country’s journalists union, said: “This is the worst period for journalism in Yemen in nearly 20 years.”
Yemen has been politically fragile for decades, but the situation intensified when a Saudi-led coalition began bombing parts of the country in 2015. Saudi Arabia, backed by the US and regional allies including Qatar and Bahrain, aimed to reinstate President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had been ousted by the Houthi rebel group. The Houthis are reportedly backed by Iran, and many now say a once-local conflict has turned into a proxy war between the two regional superpowers.
As Amal Al-Yarisi, a journalist from Sana’a, explains: “The Houthis see themselves as freedom fighters combating the invasion forces and the local traitors who are supporting them, and they take an approach of ‘if you’re not with me then you’re against me’. The Saudis consider themselves as liberators, who came to rescue the Yemeni people from the domination of Iran, so every Yemeni must join and support them. The main pressure on journalists is for them to take a side.”
That pressure has resulted in an increase of violations against journalists. In the 2016 annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Yemen had dropped to 170 out of 180 countries, while the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate recorded the murders of six journalists, 24 journalist abductions and 11 cases of torture in the first half of last year.
Al-Yarisi said: “There are several challenges facing journalists trying to cover the war. In the Houthi-held north, many journalists have been arrested because they were close to airstrike locations. Most of the time journalists are considered agents who help coordinate the Saudi airstrikes against their targets. Things are not much easier for journalists in the south, as the Saudis consider them agents who don’t care about their own people.”
The Houthis have been in control of the capital Sana’a since 2014, and under their rule, independent journalism has become difficult for many journalists to carry out. As well as physical attacks, the Houthi-controlled Ministry of Communications has stopped paying or dismissed journalists they don’t like, and shut down websites.
Al-Osaidy says the Houthis have been pursuing a systematic campaign aimed at ending independent journalism. “The leader of the Houthis, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, was recorded on tape saying that journalists and writers are more dangerous than the mercenaries they are fighting,” he says. “The Houthis believed the media’s heavy criticism was one of the reasons the Saudis found justification in their campaign.
“After the coalition started its airstrikes, the Houthis’ crackdown on journalists increased and reporters were picked up from their homes, streets or offices. Journalists have since fled Sana’a to other parts of the country, or have the left the country entirely. The few journalists who remain are always on guard, waiting for their turn to be picked up. The main concern for journalists today is their safety.”
“Another key challenge is the constant lack of security,” Mansoor says. “The repeated Saudi airstrikes against the same targets make it extremely difficult to visit the targeted areas and report on what has happened. The coalition would target the same location several times during the course of a few days, making it dangerous to visit the locations, take photographs and speak to eye witnesses. One of these victims was Al-Meqdad Al-Mejalli, who was killed in Sana’a last year. He visited the area one day after several coalition airstrikes and died after it was hit again.”
Already one of the poorest nations in the region, the war has put increased strain on the country’s 24 million population, and local journalists are calling for more international media attention. UNICEF recently said that 2.2 million children are in need of urgent care and around half of the country is without clean water. International human rights groups, meanwhile, have accused both sides of committing atrocities.
But local reporters say that the story of what’s happening in Yemen can still get out despite the challenges they face. What’s needed, they say, is more collaboration with western journalists.
Adnan Al-Jabrani, a journalist with Yemen’s biggest website Almasdaronline, says: “The first step is to start writing more and explain the situation on the ground.
“For example, The Guardian recently ran a piece after a local journalist was kidnapped. It was a good approach but it’s just one article and it doesn't happen regularly enough. Western journalists need to start thinking of campaigns and about more solidarity with their colleagues inside Yemen. This is an important topic that hasn't been covered properly.”
Mansoor added: “At the the beginning of the conflict, western media coverage was fair and focused, but after a while, it seemed like the world had forgotten about what was happening in Yemen. This was counterintuitive because the war intensified.
“The current coverage is not sufficient compared to the events unfolding in the country on a daily basis. There are war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by both sides of the war, many of which have not been investigated so far.
“Now more than ever, neutral and fair media coverage is required.”