SANA’A, YEMEN – One has to admire Pontius Pilot, the Roman procurator who may share responsibility for history’s biggest execution, but who also wouldn’t budge when pressured by his editors wanting him to change his headline.
“I have written what I have written,” is all he would say to those begging him to change a word here and there. The King of the Jews banner on top of Christ’s cross would stay and hang over history.
Freedom of the press, if one can compare the issue to the infamous Roman who asked Jesus what truth is, often is not so straightforward. It certainly isn’t in contemporary Yemen.
A couple of weeks ago authorities here ordered the closure of al- Shomu’a, translated The Candle, an independent weekly newspaper known for its harsh attacks against some people running things in this corner of the world.
The international organization Human Rights Watch reports that other Yemeni journalists are also being harassed, usually on charges of so-called defamation. Press law here makes that a common allegation.
Ten years ago things were brighter. In the spring of 1991, North and South Yemen unified and this country undertook a rather novel experiment in the Arab world: democracy. With its theocratic neighbours watching, Yemen birthed dozens of political parties for the first free elections ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.
In 1993 they took place. On this fresh page, Yemen also introduced relative freedom of the press. Under its new constitution, attacking Islam was still prohibited, but constructive criticism of the president was allowed. And the government could no longer close newspapers without court approval. Overnight the number of publications doubled to 120, half being newspapers.
The wheels of change, however, soon began to fall off. First, Yemen opposed America’s Gulf War. It considered Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait a problem to be solved by Arabs. For this, it was punished by its rich neighbour to the north. Saudi Arabia, America’s long-time friend, kicked out two million working Yemenis. This resulted in a vast loss of income for the migrants, plus their families back home. A decade on, relations are still thawing.
Then in 1994, Yemen fell into civil war after the oil-producing South wanted to secede. The three-month war cost 7,000 lives, plus an estimated $5.5 billion US to an already impoverished Third World economy. The war effectively killed any political opposition in the fledgling democracy.
Laws that protected the surviving newspapers were left intact, but largely only on paper. Since the press here is licensed, courts can still pull media accreditation. When under one-party rule, it’s a stunning system. And it’s not entirely uncommon. It’s not unlike, for example, new rules just decreed by the government in Zimbabwe.
Enter the Yemen Times. Birthed shortly before unification, Yemen’s first English paper is an independent weekly, a candle in its own rite that had its own reputation for attacking the government. Abdulazia al-Saqqaf, a professor at the University of Sana’a, was its founder and guiding force.
He was harassed, and once arrested, but in 1995 al-Saqqaf became the first Arab to receive the International Freedom of the Press Award from the National Press Club in Washington. He was killed in 1999 when he stepped onto a busy Sana’a street, and, because of his vision, he’s since been heralded as a martyr for freedom. His photo, with an appeal for God’s strength, hangs in rooms throughout the Times’ building.
The paper has some challenges. Seventy per cent of Yemen’s 20 million people live outside of cities, and more than half of the country can’t read Arabic, let alone English. But there are about 50,000 English readers among Sana’a’s million souls. So, with limited resources and the spirit of al-Saqqaf, the Times now runs up to 15,000 copies. Regular readers include university students and many of Yemen’s reputable decision-makers.
“We need help,” acknowledges al Saqqaf’s 29-year-old son Walid, who’s now the paper’s publisher. Nonetheless, while the Yemeni press lives in an uncertain atmosphere, the Times has just introduced an improved product with 30 per cent more pages, broader regional coverage, and a pledge to be a voice beyond its traditional borders.