Exile, torture and death: The perils of being a Yemeni journalist
Sanaa, Yemen – As he was bundled into the back of a car and beaten by his captors, Yousif Aglan’s screams quickly turned to silence as his thoughts shifted to the fate of his wife and young children.
With just a few dollars to his name, the budding journalist feared they’d have to resort to crippling debtors and loan sharks to pay-off his kidnappers and save him from the abuse that has afflicted so many of his colleagues.
“Working as a journalist comes with big risks,” Aglan told Al Jazeera, shortly after he was released from a year of a captivity at a Houthi-run prison.
“In Sanaa, no one dares write anti-Houthi pieces because they are known to kidnap and torture their opponents,” he said.
“While government-held areas are relatively safer, the risks are still there due to partisan and political differences.”
Yemeni journalists like Aglan have faced increasing threats on their lives since late 2014 when Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, and large swaths of the impoverished country.
Almost immediately after ousting the government, the armed group launched a crackdown on dissent, ransacking the offices of Suhail TV, Yemen Shebab TV, and Yemen Al Youm.
Saudi Arabia‘s intervention in the conflict some six months later, further worsened the media landscape, with both sides investing vast sums in their propaganda operations.
In an attempt to control the local and international narrative, the Houthis began detaining journalists without charge, while the Saudis launched an anti-Houthi propaganda channel in Riyadh and built an army of bots and spammers to push their agenda on social media, stifling reports which documented the killings of civilians.
“Journalists have been abducted, chased, and displaced,” Aglan said.
“You’ll now find them in Jordan, Cairo or Istanbul. Some have abandoned their jobs, resorting to other work. It’s a tragic situation.”
Out of 180 countries, Yemen dropped to 167 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, below notorious abusers such as Egypt, Iran, and Bahrain.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said there were at least 103 cases of kidnappings and arrests last year, with the fate of one reporter unclear after he was abducted by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The media watchdog added that there were at least 29 assassination attempts, with three confirmed deaths.
Marib Ward, a journalist based in the rebel-held city of Taiz, said the Houthis created an anti-media atmosphere, launching witch-hunts against anyone who dared criticise them.
“Houthi leader [Abdul Malik al-Houthi] encouraged people to target reporters and called them more dangerous than fighters.
“Houthi media published my name and those of other journalists, calling us coalition supporters.
“By doing that, they increased the threat on our lives and our movement. If the Houthis were to spot us, our fate would be uncertain.”
‘Atmosphere of silence’
The Saudis and the UAE, another member in the conflict, began making it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the country.
With the Saudis having complete control over Yemen’s airspace, Riyadh restricted movement in-and-out of Sanaa – the main gateway into the country – allowing only a handful of journalists entry in 2017 on UN-chartered flights.
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The restrictions forced several news crews to avoid sending their reporters to the country altogether, while independent journalists looked for alternative routes in – either a perilous 13-hour sea crossing from Djibouti or one from war-ravaged Somalia.
The Saudi-UAE alliance facilitated an effective media blackout, with the deaths of more than 100,000 children, a cholera epidemic and the worsening humanitarian situation, going largely unnoticed.
One local fixer, who helps international journalists report from the country, said the Saudis and the UAE “created an atmosphere of silence” around Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
‘Paying the ultimate price’
Mohammed al-Sabri, the head of Yemen’s Media Union, said non-partisan writers and journalists who were willing to brave the front lines were paying “the ultimate price”.
“Saudi air strikes have killed several journalists over the past three years,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The raids have caused the total and partial destruction of over 200 TV and radio stations as well as newspaper headquarters.”
Another problem journalists began facing was the almost non-existent occupational safety measures, Adel Abdulmughni, a Yemeni journalist, said.
“Some media outlets began pushing their correspondents to hazardous areas without prior training in health and safety,” said Abdulmughni, who is based in Sanaa.
With a fresh batch of journalism students graduating every year, many didn’t realise the risks associated with their work, he added, with news agencies failing to provide them with equipment taken to war zones as standard – such as flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones.
Not a target
Waleed al-Sharabi, a Yemeni journalist who has been bedridden since March this year, said his employer and the Yemeni government failed to provide him with any assistance after he was injured.
Sharabi sustained life-changing injuries when armed men attacked the headquarters of Akhbar Al-Youm – an independent newspaper in the port city of Aden.
Recounting the tragedy, Sharabi said: “the armed men set the newspaper office ablaze. I found myself trapped by the fire which engulfed the whole building.
“As I jumped from a third floor window I sustained a fracture in the spinal cord and two fractures in my left leg and one in my right, in addition to bruises on my body.”
Despite several surgeries, Sharabi said his health was still not stable.
“Though my condition is still bad, I left the hospital because of the debts I have accumulated. I am in dire need to travel abroad for treatment, but I can’t afford it. The government has not offered me financial support and my family can’t afford to pay.”
With perpetrators escaping prosecution for murdering journalists, Yemeni reporters say they will continue to face targeted harassment amid little hope of action by authorities.
And with the war effort hastily approaching the city of Hodeidah, the journalists fear they will be forced to grossly under-report the civilian casualty rate.
“We could end up with a situation like Mosul where hundreds of bodies are still being recovered from the rubble a year after the city was captured.”