Freedom of the Press and Democracy in Yemen

"Yemen Is a Law unto Itself"

Nadia A. Al-Sakkaf is editor-in-chief of the independent English-language daily Yemen Times, which was established in 1990. She spoke to Alfred Hackensberger about media, press freedom, democracy, and tribal culture in Yemen

Nadia A. Al-Sakkaf (photo: private copyright)
"Yemen is a growing democracy that faces the challenge of a huge tribal and social heritage," says Nadia A. Al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times

​​ It is understandable that Arabic newspapers produced abroad are published in English, but why publish an English-language newspaper in Yemen?

Nadia A. Al-Sakkaf: When the newspaper was established in 1990 there were no English-language media about Yemen. It was the only independent source of information about the country and the intention was that it would create a bridge between Yemen and the rest of the world. In 1998, we became the first medium in the country to establish a website.

You talk about independence. What is your definition of independence and can you really be independent in Yemen?

Al-Sakkaf: There is no such thing as absolute independence, just like there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. But what we mean by independence is that we are not affiliated with any political, religious, social, or cultural party or organization. We try to communicate 'constructive information'
in order to promote the development of Yemen, freedom, human rights, and justice.

This is only possible to a very limited degree in many other Arab countries. Do you experience any problems in this regard in Yemen?

Yemen's president Ali Abdallah Saleh with Angela Merkel (photo: AP)
Direct criticism of President Ali Abdallah Saleh (seen here on a state visit to Berlin in February 2008) is not welcome in Yemen

​​ Al-Sakkaf: Of course we do. Some political issues are restricted, but more often than restrictions, we have difficulty accessing information. That being said, the situation in Yemen is not like that in the rest of the region. We have more democracy and more freedom to express ourselves than people in any other country in the region.

What subjects are taboo or are heavily restricted?

Al-Sakkaf: The journalist Abdelkarim Al-Kaiwani was sentenced to six years in prison for what he wrote about the Sa'ada war. Has was targeted by the state because he wrote about the president and the fact that his son is next in line to succeed him. Other taboo issues include Yemeni unity, the efficiency of the army, and the president's character.

That being said, to be honest, you can get away with a lot, including criticism of the government. However, if you target a powerful businessman or sheikh and talk about his corruption or say anything negative about him, then things get personal.

What you mean when you say that "things get personal"?

Al-Sakkaf: State office-holders who are also highly influential in the social or business world are every Yemeni journalist's nightmare. These people are completely untouchable. They were behind the sudden and random attacks on some journalists at home or on the streets. We always blame the state for it, because the state should have protected us and held the culprits accountable.

Can you not avoid these risks by writing on the Internet or writing blogs? If necessary, you can keep your identity a secret on the Internet.

Al-Sakkaf: Blogging is certainly important and an outlet for freedom of expression. I don't think the government can control the net forever  although they are trying. With time, information will be made available to all those who have access to it. And here is the main point: in Yemen, less than 1 per cent of the population have access to the Internet so as you can see, the Internet is not really the best way of bringing change to Yemeni society. For us as journalists the Internet is certainly very helpful because it gives us access to a variety of opinions and ideas, which helps us write more professional journalistic stories.

Media control in the West is much less intense than it is in Arab countries. What is your view of the way Muslim countries are covered in the Western media?

Clay houses in Shibam (photo: pa/dpa)
Clay houses, such as the ones shown here in Shibam, are popular with tourists, an important source of income in Yemen which, unlike its neighbouring countries in the Arabian Peninsula, has no oil reserves

​​ Al-Sakkaf: The Western media have their own share of problems. I have come to the realisation that many of the Western media don't have the freedom or the objectivity they brag about.

What exactly do you mean?

Al-Sakkaf: They are bound by a set of rules on stereotyping and selling acceptable stories. To write a story about a Muslim terrorist sells more than a story about the winner of the Nobel Prize.

It is a well-known fact that bad news is good news. But you just mentioned the freedom of the press, what did you mean by that?

Al-Sakkaf: There is a basic problem about covering certain demonstrations or writing about governments and issues in the Western world and in the world as a whole. Many media follow a political agenda. I have found more objectivity and truth in smaller newspapers and media than in large media in the West.

Western journalists have a lot of freedom and access to information. They are often able to speak their minds. However, if their opinions are not in line with the publisher's agenda, the journalist has to start a blog and express his/her opinions there. If you want to read what the people really think, go on the Internet, don't read the newspapers.

Yemen is depicted as the land of Arabian Nights, as a safe haven for al-Qaida, or a territory dominated by wild tribes that are bound by conservative traditions. How do you see Yemen?

Attack on the US embassy in Yemen (photo: AP)
16 people were killed in an attack on the US embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September 2008. It is presumed that the people behind the attacks have links to al-Qaida

​​ Al-Sakkaf: I would describe Yemen as a growing democracy that faces the challenge of a huge tribal and social heritage. The real picture is a combination of all these things. Yemen is a very beautiful country with fantastic scenery and a fascinating history. The social system is dominated by tribes. Most people identify first with their tribe and then with the state – if at all. The tribal system determines what authority people hold, their rank, relations, and even livelihood issues such as jobs and businesses. Tradition dictates the way things work around here.

Is Yemen a 'safe haven' for al-Qaida?

Al-Sakkaf: Sure it is. Imagine a place where there is no infrastructure, no rule of law, and corruption to the extent that you can buy your way out of jail in a day. What helps the al-Qaida radicals is that Yemenis are very poor and uneducated. If they cannot have a decent life on earth, then selling them a ticket to a better life in heaven is a good bargain.

How do the neighbouring countries view Yemen?

Al-Sakkaf: We are looked down on by our rich neighbours because of the country's extreme poverty and its huge population. There are 25 million people in Yemen alone  that's more than in the whole of the Gulf region. It is expected that this figure will rise to 60 million by 2030.

In other words, Yemen is not a typical Gulf country?

Al-Sakkaf: Absolutely not. Yemen is a law unto itself. There are striking economic differences. Don't forget that we are a republic, we have relatively fair elections compared to all the kingdoms and states around us. We are a potential threat regarding democracy and the political rights of women, because we are miles ahead of them in these areas.

Interview by Alfred Hackensberger

© 2008

Background Günther Orth
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Three gatherings of German-Arabic authors in Yemen have created a fragile cultural connection between the two countries. But Yemeni literature is still largely unknown in Germany. Günther Orth has studied this literature and recently compiled and translated an anthology of Yemeni stories

Civil War in Yemen
An Uncertain Peace
Civil war has been waged in Yemen for years, largely unnoticed by the world community. In the northern Yemeni province of Saada, Zaidi Houthi rebels fight against government military forces. The conflict increasingly seems to be turning into a proxy war over regional supremacy, however. By Hanna Labonté

Hip-Hop in Yemen
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At weddings, on car radios and while chewing intoxicating qat leaves: the traditional sounds of the lute can be heard everywhere in Yemen. Now, however, the country's first ever hip-hop concert was staged in the capital. Klaus Heymach reports

Yemen Times

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