Yemen’s year-old raging war, where a Saudi-led coalition launched an air campaign against the Houthis, has claimed more than 6,408 lives and left 30,139 injured. There is also the ongoing conflict between other groups in Yemen, including Yemeni tribes, al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants.
The situation in the Arab World’s poorest country is incredibly challenging to report on due to the conditions activists and journalists face.
Journalists in Yemen are faced with threats, indiscriminate bombing, and other acts of violence which not only affects them, but also family, friends and colleagues.
Background to journalism in Yemen
When the revolution started in 2011 it was an ordinary thing for Yemenis to post on their Facebook account and some were able to reflect their ideas well and local Yemeni websites would pick up on it.
Baraa Shiban, a London-based Yemeni human rights activist, said: “It has developed from 2011. For instance, people like me, who does not have a journalism degree but because of how things changed I felt the need to tell people part of the story. I did write for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, the BBC and many more.”
After 2011, Shiban strongly felt the issue of the U.S. drone program was not covered enough in the Western media. After a drone strike in Yemen, he would meet the victims and pitch the story to a website. When the Saudi-led coalition started in March 2015 many media outlets started to approach him because of his previous coverage of Yemen.
When Shiban went to meet the victims of the drone strikes he faced difficulties as a result of the Yemeni culture – interviewing the women. One time he went with one of his colleagues and she was able to talk to the women, therefore, women can have a better advantage.
Since the situation in 2011, along with the continuous change and developments in Yemen, it has got many people involved into this form of citizen journalism.
How citizen journalism has evolved in Yemen
The war in Yemen has made it extremely difficult for journalists to report on a range of key topics that need to be report on, from economic stagnation, political paralysis, resource shortages, and the local people of Yemen who have poured into the streets to protest against corruption and demand a better future for their country.
Jason Stern, a senior research associate for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: “Yemen was never a safe place for journalists. But since the Saudi-led intervention in the civil war last year, it has quickly become one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist.
“On one side, the Houthis and their allies have detained numerous journalists and effectively shut down all independent outlets in territories they control. Houthi forces and their allies have also killed at least one journalist. On the other side, at least six journalists have been killed by the Saudi-led coalition. Meanwhile, Islamist militant groups that target journalists have taken advantage of the chaos to spread their influence throughout the country.”
Both the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YJS) have appealed to Ismail Ould Cheikh, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s representative in Yemen, to take action against the torture and attacks on journalists in the country.
Despite the ever-present risks, Yemeni journalists venture out on a daily basis. A lot of those journalists are citizen journalists, who do not work with any media outlet. Most of them previously worked for outlets that were closed down by the Houthis in Sana’a, and now they have turned to social media to highlight angles they think is an important part of the Yemeni story.
Stern said: “They do so often without professional training, safety equipment, or insurance that help mitigate risks. Without their efforts, the world would know even less about the incredibly complex situation on the ground.”
Subjects and angles journalists are pursuing
The war has distorted the image of Yemen and transformed the spirit of the Yemeni people. Jobs are scarce, food shortages are rife or expensive.
According to the Crisis in Yemen report by the International Development Committee which is appointed by the House of Commons, 14.4 million people are food insecure. The UN gave an approximation of 3 million people in need of preventive services for malnourishment. An estimate of 320,000 children are experiencing severe acute malnutrition, meaning they are nine times more likely to die than their peers.
Fatik Al-Rodaini, a Yemeni based in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, has worked in the journalism field since 1996. Since May 2015, Al-Rodaini has worked as a humanitarian worker. He helps internally displaced persons (IDPs) and deprived people in Yemen by distributing food and other aid. He is the founder of the organisation, Mona Relief.
Al-Rodaini reports on the airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition against Yemeni civilians and the destruction to infrastructures, such as farms, homes and schools. Regarding the situation of IDPs, he reports on their new life in the cities, towns and villages they escape to.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2,755,916 Yemenis are internally displaced and 1.80 billion funding requirement is needed as of April 2016.
Charlene Rodrigues, a freelance journalist based in Yemen from 2014 until 2015, said: “Before the war I wrote about architecture and language to highlight the positive cultural aspect. Yet, I did highlight child marriage. When the Houthis took over Sana’a, a lot of what I wrote then was how the Houthis took over Sana’a in the first place and the transition from the time they swept over and took power. Also, how many people actually believed in them but slowly their transition of how they completely lost trust in them. Some are happy to say they want to see them bombed out but it is still a very divided and polarised view.
“After the war it was mainly seeing child soldiers. Children losing their childhood. Getting used to daily bombing. Invisible victims of war. Yemen’s healthcare was already suffering but it getting worse, it is at a point now where women choose to give birth in caves rather than in hospitals. Hugely devastating but I kind of see the sense in why they do what they do. Regardless of all this trauma, despondency, devastation that I report about in these places I am always awestruck by the huge optimism and positive spirit these people carry.”
Rodrigues said that her stories usually have a human interest angle and she has done some political reporting but to get reliable information out of Yemen, journalists either have trustworthy contacts but even then it can be a challenge because they switch sides.
The Crisis in Yemen report also highlighted that 19.4 million people in the country need support to access safe drinking water and hygiene, out of that total 9.8 million are in need as a direct result of the war. Water trucks are the main source for many but are between two and four times more expensive and sometimes are unable to enter areas due to interference from the parties involved in the conflict.
Rodrigues found electricity and water were her main obstacles. She said: “I do not think people in London or America understand the challenges journalists face working in an environment with a lack of electricity or water or internet speed to actually get information out of the country. It is a huge underestimate.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine what people are going through with no end in sight? No education or employment. No hope. No future.”
A driver once told Rodrigues that Sana’a must be the only capital city in darkness. There was electricity at her hotel from 4pm until 11pm. She would not venture out when it was pitch black. When she was out during the day she would try to do as much work as she could and aimed to be back at the hotel by 7pm.
Al-Rodaini commented that the challenges differ from place to place and from topic to topic. Sometimes he finds it hard in obtaining news from remote areas because the cost of travelling or gaining access is problematic. He tries to tackle these challenges by contacting people near to those places who help in passing on the correct details. Another obstacle is the authorities, which prevent him to cover particular stories but sometimes he resorts to activists to help reduce those challenges.
The last time Rodrigues travelled to Yemen she went to Aden, which is in the South. She had her business visa from the embassy in London, but without notice it was not valid in the North because it is controlled by the Houthis. After covering the aftermath of a few indiscriminate attacks by Saudi Arabia on bombed out sites, she was detained by the Houthis.
“They assume you are a spy or some sort of trouble. I stopped working for some time but afterwards I was let go but I was not allowed to go to government hospitals essentially or any other public services that were controlled by them,” said Rodrigues.
Rodrigues stressed that she would love to go back to Yemen but then she wrote an article about it in The Guardian and now fears she is on a watch list. There is also a huge level of calculated risks but the risks outweigh the kind of coverage she could actually get because it is just very tight and controlled by different warring factions.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released a statement on April 25 2016 in praise of the release of two abducted Yemeni journalists and urges those still held hostage to be released immediately. Amir Baaweidan was the second journalist to be released from al-Qaeda’s hold over a week ago following a security operation in the Hadhramaut region. His colleague Abdullah Alsily was released the week before.
The Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YJS) has demanded for the release of Mohammed Mokri, who was captured by al-Qaeda in Hadhramaut and 14 journalists who remain in captivity for over a year by the Houthis in Sana’a, amid allegations of physical and psychological torture.
“What I did find intimidating at one point was when I did a front page story for The Independent. It is the editors entirely indiscretion to use the headline they think that is appropriate and the editor at the time said: ‘Yemen Houthi rebels ready to talk’ and this exclusive interview was given to me. I did have the leader of the Houthis get back to me through my translator asking why did they use the word rebels? We are actually the ruling government and they wanted my editor to issue a correction.
“I tried to tell him rebels is not entirely wrong because it is a sign they are revolting, they want change and Yemen to be free from corruption but they have also committed a lot of war crimes. Somehow it just died down, there has not been any major sense of harassment or bullying, not for me at least.”
The leader of the Houthis permitted the interview to be conducted at his residence. This was surprising due to the fact they do not like journalists.
Stories covered in the past month
Rodrigues wrote a story she had been contemplating about for several months. The theme was on the women she met in hospitals who had come to give birth but the contrariness was that some had come to see their children die: ‘Yemen: War-Zone Babies’. She also wrote about the priest in Aden who had been kidnapped by militants.
“I did tackle the argument as to how all religions coexisted peacefully before and during these times. What is it driving these religious groups? Not only in Yemen but places like Libya and Syria. Is it really Muslims or something that is nothing to do with Islam? And the rise in persecution towards Christianity and there is no straightforward answer but the article does highlight at one point Muslims did look after Christianity.
“So through my stories I try to destroy the stigma that this country is entirely a culture of intolerant and belligerent people because they are not. I do not encourage doing Al-Qaeda stories because those are the only ones’ editors from Europe and the rest of the world favour, which is a terrible stigma attached to the region. There is far too much to experience in Yemen when you actually live there. You have more of a community feeling, people have so little but are generous. It is not something you experience here.”
Rodrigues said if it was not for the current situation, many people, especially Europeans and Westerners would actually settle in Yemen. ‘It is so culturally stimulating and inspiring. It is not like Dubai and Qatar and Saudi Arabia which is superficial’, said Rodrigues.
Al-Rodaini said: “As a man I can go out to any places that I want, but with fear because the security situation in the whole country is poor. For me in the capital, Sana’a, the situation is somehow good.”
Rodrigues felt although she was a foreigner and given the fact many other foreigners had left Yemen, she still felt safe. Even if she was the only student there she had a security guard and there were other people who usually looked out for her, such as a shopkeeper. She never became adventuresome but if she was in Old Sana’a she would be out until around 10pm. If she was out with friends, then they would see her to the front door.
Rodrigues said: “I never really felt threatened in the communities at all. I did slightly start to when the government fell in January 2015; it did slightly become even more lawless. When Yemenis started to tell me that I think you should go home, that is when I really started to doubt what I was doing there.”
A lot of places of entertainment and hotels were closed down. Some her friends told her around 2013/2014, in the run-up to the war, areas where people formally hang out such as discos and shisha cafés were being shut down.
Rodrigues said she had immense support from many people – her professors. The community she was living in. She never felt alone. However, her family did not approve of her covering the war.
“Someone sitting here and looking at Yemen, they constantly think people are experiencing the kind of Brussels attacks every day. Which is not the case. There are women and children. Families who celebrate Eid and have birthday parties. They do all sorts over there. People have regular lives,” said Rodrigues.
Rodrigues grew up in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1991. She has widely travelled the Middle East and has always been interested in the Arabic language and Yemen. She considers it to be the only country in the Arab World where people can truly experience the Middle East, because of its civilisation dating back to 2,500 years ago.
“It is an irony in the sense that it is a good thing they hold onto traditions but it is also the very fact that kind of holds them back from so many aspects in life. That said, they are far more liberal, this is the misconception, they are far more liberal compared to Saudi Arabia.
“And after the war began people like Bushra al-Fusail, started the Yemeni women bike revolution to protest the cultural stigma that they have endured for such a long time. If you did the same thing in Saudi Arabia, you would go behind bars or you will be hanged or persecuted. I also think it is a hugely misunderstood region, it is a hugely misunderstood language and it is a hugely misunderstood culture.”
The main risks to journalists today are: Surveillance (33 per cent), Imprisonment (29 per cent), Murder (22 per cent) and Kidnapping (16 per cent). These risks are not just restricted to journalists who cover conflict; nine out of ten are local journalists covering regional news.
It does not matter how journalists prepare themselves to cover conflicts, experience does not prevent the fact that war could kill.