SANA, Yemen — Journalists covering the antigovernment movement in Yemen are reporting being attacked by supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and in some cases by state security officers.Neither the White House nor State Department took any time away from Libya on Monday to discuss Yemen’s crisis. This silence over the assault of free press must be part of Obama's "low-key strategy" to uphold democracy and human rights. Ingatius won't be getting away with that one, especially when the threats to keep Saleh in power keep coming.
The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate has been alerted to 53 cases of harassment in the last few weeks. Those included threatening phone calls and serious physical attacks.
One Yemeni journalist, Mohammed al-Jaradi, said he was walking from the antigovernment demonstration at Sana University back to the office of the newspaper Al Ahali on Friday, when three men dressed in civilian clothes approached him.
One grabbed him by the collar. Mr. Jaradi said he immediately knew why.
“They asked me what I had been taking photos of,” Mr. Jaradi said. “They accused me of taking photos of women.” In Yemen, it is traditionally inappropriate to photograph women.
“I said to them, ‘I am taking photos for the sake of freedom,’ ” he said.
Mr. Jaradi said he was then beaten and thrown to the ground. One attacker took out a jambiya, a traditional dagger that is customary for Yemeni men to carry, and stabbed Mr. Jaradi in the arm. The attackers stole his jacket and shoes, but did not get his camera, which was in his pocket.
Journalists in Yemen typically enjoy greater freedoms than those in most other Arab countries.
Many independent news outlets freely criticize government policies, and some opposition members directly attack the president. But the government also has a history of preventing coverage of specific events, like its war with Houthi rebels in the northern Saada Province.
Human Rights Watch, which issued a statement urging the authorities to stop these attacks, believes the government is trying to carry out this type of selective news blackout now.
“Beating up journalists is a blatant attempt by the authorities to prevent the Yemeni people and the world from witnessing a critical moment in Yemen,” Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa division, said in a statement.
Ashraf al-Raify, of the journalists’ syndicate’s committee for press freedom, said that before the current political unrest began, the Ministry of Interior would respond to claims of harassment by sending officers to investigate. But in recent weeks, he said, “nothing” has been done.
“There has been an escalation in this crackdown campaign,” Mr. Raify said.
While the opposition believes the government is paying the attackers, Yemeni officials deny any relationship with them. But protesters have filmed police officers giving out sticks to government supporters, who use them to attack protesters.
Mr. Saleh has spoken out publicly against attacks on journalists, though that has not stopped them.
“No one is above the law,” said a high-ranking government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. “Whoever is attacking the journalists should be brought to justice and will be brought to justice. People have the right to express their opinions and write.” The official added that the attacks were “isolated incidents.”
Nasser al-Dubaiby, the publisher of a local opposition weekly, Al-Hurrah, said he woke up Wednesday to find his living room in flames. He suspected arson because the electrical equipment in the room did not appear to be the cause of the fire. Mr. Dubaiby said that he remembered closing all the windows in the living room, but that one facing the street was open when he got up.
If the fire was arson, the syndicate, which confirmed this episode, said it was the second case against a journalist’s home.
Mr. Dubaiby said he had received phone calls threatening him if he did not stop publishing coverage of the protests.
“They said, ‘Stop messing with us, or you will be punished. And what you write, it will not go unnoticed,’ ” he said.
“O.K., set my car on fire, set the office of the newspaper on fire, but my house?” Mr. Dubaiby said, adding that he has continued covering the protests.
The American Embassy in Sana said in a statement last week that it had “watched with concern recent infringements of press freedom in Yemen,” and it urged Mr. Saleh’s government “to demonstrate its respect for the role of independent media as stipulated by Yemen’s Constitution and laws.”
Mr. Saleh is a strategic American ally who saw foreign aid to his country more than double to $300 million in 2010 after a failed attack on a Detroit-bound airplane by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on Dec. 25, 2009.
“Saleh talks on the television that journalists won’t come under attack, the next day he attacks them,” said Abdul-Rahman Barman, a Yemeni human rights lawyer. “He talks on the television that he won’t attack the protesters, the next day they are attacked. He only does what he wants.”
Former CIA agent Bruce Riedel, a leading Obama adviser, is his latest defender: "Two months ago, Suleiman and his Yemeni counterpart and Musa Kusa all had al-Qaeda at the top of their agenda list. Now their to-do lists are very different."
"Whatever focus we've maintained on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and insisted that Saleh maintain, will be turned because of all the other pressures he's under," added a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official.Two months ago, Saleh's agenda had already begun to collapse under civil division and his counterproductive motion to eliminate presidential term-limits. AQAP was running wild before Yemen's revolutionary outbreak - democracy cannot be stopped by these threats.
"The West has a double-standard in maintaining these dictators," says Mir Ali, a protester in the Southern Movement's stronghold of Aden. "Why doesn’t [US President Barack] Obama get mad when he sees young people without any future in Yemen? Why doesn’t Obama stop giving Saleh military aid, especially when he knows the regime is going to use it to kill us? The US has interests, we understand. But we have interests [regime change] they must also understand."