As Yemen’s political division deepens further, the journalist’s role has become even more difficult than that of the politician. Since the Houthi’s takeover of the capital Sanaa in September last year, reports about journalists attacked, and cameras smashed or confiscated have become an almost daily occurrence. Inside the Newsroom sat down with Hamoud Munassar to discuss the position and the role of Yemeni journalists in a country suffering from a power vacuum.
Q. As a veteran Yemen journalist, can you tell us from your experience what it means working as journalist in Yemen?
Former President [Ali Abdullah Saleh] said ruling Yemen is like ‘dancing on the heads of snakes.’ To be a journalist in Yemen is to play with fire. Looking for news is like carving rocks. You work in a society that is dealing with a new profession. The classiest description this society has for the journalist is ‘foreign agent,’ this if he is working for a foreign news agency. If he is working for a local media outlet, then he is either a provocateur, if he was with the opposition; or a mouthpiece, if he was sided with the government.
Q. Has the situation worsened for journalists under the Houthis?
The parties that are drawing more criticism for their negative practices are the ones who are most hostile toward journalism and journalists. Journalists are facing serious challenges, with the dominance of the Houthis. Houthis want everyone to paint with one color, which pushed 90 percent of the press, if not more, to become an opposing side. Mainly because they [Houthis] rely on violence. But journalism, despite the challenges, is stronger than the political institutions. The first one to thwart the Houthis in their little wars, when they moved from being the oppressed to being the oppressors, was the press. Journalists are the ones who stood up against the former president and the former regime in 2009 and 2010 and are the ones who sparked the uprising against him [later in 2011]. They are the ones defending human rights and freedoms, and exposing violations today. I would say, journalism in Yemen is a benefit for everybody, and is harmful to enemies of freedom, justice and the state of law.
Q. Do you personally know any journalist who has been kidnapped or targeted by the Houthis for their line of work?
Yes, there are many journalists who were attacked by the Houthis. An al-Hurra TV photographer was beaten up and his camera smashed. Some colleagues working in local online news websites were also assaulted and beaten. There are of course some journalists working for political parties that are basically political opponents to the Houthis. Some were assaulted, kidnapped, tortured, and then later released. The journalists’ syndicate and the Freedom Foundation for Media Freedom, Rights and Development recorded more than 140 violations against journalists by the Houthis since their seizure of Sanaa on Sept. 21.
Q. Yemen is now pretty much divided politically into two. The northern region is controlled by the Houthis and the southern region is supporting President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Is the division also reflected in the media landscape?
No. There is a very small minority of journalists that sided with the Houthis, those who align themselves with the Houthi political and social thinking. But 98 percent of the Yemeni press, regardless of all of its political, social, and ideological differences, is standing against the Houthis, against their methods, especially that they showed a great deal of extremism, dominance and exclusion.
Q. How about state-owned media? How independent are they?
State-owned media operated in some level of independence up until Sept. 21. But it did not reflect the spirit of change and dialogue, considering that a large part of it was still influenced by the former regime. When the Houthis seized Sanaa, they gradually laid their hands on state television. They forced their way in and changed the state television’s staff. Then they did that with the Yemeni news agency Saba and Al Thawra newspaper… Saba is working in tandem with the Houthi direction. It prioritizes their activities and news … On the other hand, the Aden news agency, along with its television, radio station, and newspapers …represent President Hadi. State media is now divided: some are siding with Hadi and some are siding with the Houthis. While most of the private media is against the Houthi coup and against the exclusionist Houthi method. Journalists are not with Hadi, but they reject the Houthis.
Q. Is there a possibility that non-state media gets divided as well?
The departure of Hadi to Aden, the transformation of Aden to a center of political activity, and the calls to turn Aden into a capital constitute a threat and could deeply divide state-owned media. Non-state media follows another methodology and does not succumb to political pressure. But the situation is becoming more dangerous and more difficult for journalists and could lead to divisions, in the presence of two poles. With more oppression, restrictions, the forced closure of newspapers and online publications, I think non-state media can be greatly affected.
Q. How about alternative media like social media networks?
Social media plays a very important role. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, What’s App constitute the principle source of news for the non-state media …The Yemeni audience is circulating a great deal of social media content.
Q. How do you verify news coming from social media?
As professional journalists, we have our means. I can make phone calls to all sides associated with the news. And one source is not enough. [I need] at least three sources to make sure of the information.
Q. What is the future of journalism in Yemen?
Journalism will remain the field that resists the coup against positive transition the most. There are challenges and security threats facing journalism. But I do sense resistance among journalists. The Yemeni citizen, even the tribal citizen who lives in an isolated area, has acquired a journalistic sense and works to deliver the information to the media inside and outside of Yemen…A large number of citizens, from different walks of life, have turned into civilian journalists. Our duty as professional journalists is to coordinate the news and present them in a professional manner.