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Press persevere in Yemen

A desperate Saleh assaults those covering his downfall

by William Dubbs

Tens of thousands of protestors throughout Yemen continued to demand the fall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh last month. This is a testament to the fact that the president and his ruling clique seem to have decisively failed in their draconian clampdown on the media, a clear bid to “monopolize the message.”

Throughout the last bloody three months, which have seen more than 120 peaceful protestors slaughtered by security forces and their gun-slinging loyalists, journalism has also been a major victim. Dozens of incidents of beating, kidnapping and censoring local and foreign media have run in parallel to the regime’s erratic bloodletting. The youth protest movement has been quick to notice that their cause desperately depends on conveying the behavior of President Saleh in its full horror, and have made obvious common cause with international outlets.

“Al Jazeera,” painted in bright white and broad calligraphic strokes, is emblazoned on the pavement of Yemen’s “Change Square” outside Sanaa University. Meanwhile, the government’s partisans have taken a full account of their detractors in the media, and predictably, they are not content to disagree civilly.

“We caught an Al Jazeera camera crew try to sneak up to ourprotest,” Saleh-supporter Nabeel Majid, said casually. Then, with a proud, deep laugh he proclaimed: “We beat them and sent them running!” A particularly memorable placard at the same gathering consisted of the Israeli flag, with the Star of David beside the Al Jazeera logo, a complement to the president’s assertion that unrest in his country was engineered in “the control room in TelAviv.”

After nearly 33 years of divide-and-rule politics and endemic corruption, Saleh’s power-hold is now in doubt; the regime is utterly incapable of countenancing the truth and will stop at no lengths to keep it away from a people gaining a new consciousness. First, the government deported Al Jazeera journalists, then plain-clothes thugs broke into the station’s downtown Sanaa offices and looted its camera equipment. Baffled by how the network kept managing to spirit correspondents into the country despite an official ban, security forces finally super-glued the door of their officeshut.

But the powers that be in Yemen will need more than super-glue to put their broken government back together again. A massacre on March 18th of more than 50 demonstrators, many of them just young boys, shocked the nation and led to a wave of official resignations from which the President is still reeling. Perhaps not a coincidence, the deportation of six foreign journalists, working for major outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, predated the atrocity by a matter of only a few days.

Poor Yemen, known in happier times as “Arabia Felix,” has never been a media darling.  Even in these heady days, the most revolutionary and hopeful in its millennia-old history of civilization, other current events in the Arab Spring, notably Libya and Syria, are stealing the headlines. And that’s just the way the president likes it. The media is something to be courted and coaxed, not welcomed and let free to do its work. Journalist visas, now non-existent, were granted with gusto by the government when Al Qaeda was the scoop and panicked western audiences promised dividends in military aid and development assistance.

The staff of CBS news documentary “60 Minutes” was even granted exclusive access to the president’s nephew, General Yahya Saleh, to discuss the much-exaggerated threat of terrorism. Now that the Central Security Forces, which Yahya commands, are busy shooting and tear-gassing protestors throughout Yemen, the General has suddenly become camera shy. Meanwhile, the many government news outlets are engaged in a race to the bottom. “Al Yemen” TV describes the perpetrators of March’s massacre as merely annoyed neighbors. “Nabanews” trumpets pictures of young men and veiled women together at protests as “proof” of shameful and impious “mixing” of the sexes.

A small group of international journalists, many of them poorly paid young freelancers, remain to document the struggle for the future of 24-million Yemenis to the outside world. But most promisingly, a whole generation has finally been inspired to unleash their creative potential and, for once, seize the means of defining their own identity. Countless young Yemenis now dedicate themselves to citizen journalism, blogging, and “facebooking” the progress of their movement, confident that the day the government can no longer dictate their lives is near.

William Dubbs is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Sanaa



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