Why the world ignores Yemen: A conversation with Afrah Nasser

Sanaa Yemen
Sanaa, Yemen [Photo: yeowatzup/Wikimedia]
It’s a devastating Middle Eastern war in which millions of people have been forced to flee their homes. Regional rivals are using the conflict to expand their own influence, while al-Qaeda and the Islamic State seek to take advantage of the chaos. Bombing raids strike civilian areas with impunity, and torture is common.

Everyone knows that all this is happening in Syria. Yet many laymen are unaware that the same things are taking place in Yemen, too. So why have most people heard so little about the Yemeni war in comparison? What are the challenges journalists face in covering the conflict? JMEPP spoke with award-winning Yemeni journalist and blogger Afrah Nasser about media coverage of the war, and what lies ahead for her country.

Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy: How well would you say the Western media has covered the war in Yemen? What about Arab media outlets’ coverage?

Afrah Nasser: Comparing to other tragedies, like natural disasters or terrorist attacks or even the war in Syria, the western media coverage of the war in Yemen has been so little; and whenever there is, it is ​unfortunately often in the form of parachute journalism.

This is largely because it’s been hard to access Yemen, as Saudi Arabia has enforced a blockade on Yemen, and if you want to go you as a journalist (Arab or non-Arab) or as a foreigner, you have to have permission from the Saudis and the rebels, the Houthis. It has been like hell to enter or leave Yemen even for ordinary Yemenis themselves; a trip that usually would take you few hours might take days or weeks. I met my mother earlier this month in Ethiopia after she went from Sana’a to Aden, then to Cairo, then to Addis Ababa. She also had to take the same long and expensive journey back to Sana’a.

That’s being said, it’s costly and risky for journalists to access Yemen. And if you do enter Yemen, some western and Arabic media outlets might not buy your story because they are careful of annoying the Saudis. At the same time, inside Yemen, the Houthis have caused major crackdown on all journalists. Houthis are ranked the second-leading abductors of journalists in the world after the Islamic State, according to the latest report by Reporters without Borders.

JMEPP: Would you say that the war in Syria is the main reason that the Yemeni war has received comparatively little attention, or are there other important factors at play?

Nasser: The war in Syria is partially a reason for the little attention Yemen has received: that is, the Syrian refugees pouring into the European coast helped Syrians get great attention and empathy. But Yemenis are trapped between the Gulf countries – who are bombing them – and the sea neighboring other poor countries, i.e. Somalia and Djibouti.

Moreover, unlike the war in Syria, the Saudis are a direct actor in the Yemen war and this tremendously impacts the lack of reporting or the non-reporting on the Yemen war. As the war began in Yemen in early 2015, WikiLeaks released thousands of diplomatic cables from Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry, which included documents showing how Saudi Arabia is buying media silence, Arabic media in specific. Understandably, the oil-rich country, one of the world’s top economic powers, Saudi Arabia has cash that can buy anything and anyone. The problem is, Saudi Arabia is at war with not any country but the poorest Arab country, Yemen – which gives you an idea about the unequal power in this war.

Also, from my observations and the frequently asked questions I receive about the war in Yemen, there seems to be a misconception that the war in Yemen is based on sectarian lines, as some reporters speak of Iran’s role in the Yemen war and how the war in Yemen is a proxy war, and all that. Then, one reduces the bloodshed in Yemen to mere Sunnis-killing-Shi’ites rhetoric.

That’s an inaccurate assessment. Sectarianism is not the key driver of the Yemen war. A super-complicated political and economic power struggle is what drove this war to break out from the very beginning. There are many different internal and external actors in the Yemen war with many different political agendas – some actors can find a cross-match point where sectarian and political motives meet. I may provide one example, and that’s understanding the role that the ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has had in the course of the many political transitions Yemen has gone through since the beginning of his rule in 1978 and his survival politics.

JMEPP: You’ve written that in Yemen, “journalists are discarding journalism and turning into armed fighters at frontlines, each motivated by his political affiliation to this or that armed group.” Are there any exceptions to this – news outlets or individual journalists who you think have done an admirably even-handed job at covering the conflict?

Nasser: Few news outlets have done diligent journalism work, despite all the hardship. In my view, Al Masdar has done a great job in covering Yemen, and even during the war they expanded to report in English. They are funded by the Islah political party, which makes their reporting not perfectly objective.

Other individuals who I believe have done amazing work under extremely tough circumstances: Yemeni artist Murad Subaye in Sana’a, Yemeni artist and theater director Amr Gamal in Aden, and the Basement Cultural House in Sana’a. These people cleverly overcame the huge restrictions on free expression and press during the war, and used literature and art to tell stories that matter to Yemenis and that speak about Yemenis’ suffering.

JMEPP: According to a report by Jeremy Scahill, in 2011 Obama personally intervened with Ali Abdullah Saleh to request that Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye not be released from prison, arguing that Shaye – who’d interviewed al-Qaeda members and reported on a US cruise missile strike at al-Majala – was affiliated with AQAP. To the best of your knowledge, are there other recent instances in which foreign countries have attempted to stifle journalism within Yemen? The Houthis have been frequently accused of detaining journalists, but how has the Saudi-led coalition acted in areas under its control with regard to press freedoms?

Nasser: As I mentioned earlier, the air and naval blockade enforced on the north part of Yemen, starting from closing Sana’a airport, has a direct impact on the stifling of journalists. It’s a tactic Saudi Arabia used since the beginning of the war on all parts of Yemen, and later allowing traveling from Aden after it was taken back from the Houthis and Saleh’s forces. Still, the blockade greatly contributed in the little, if not zero, mobility Yemeni journalists and activists would have to travel and attend conferences or media programs on Yemen.

For instance, respected human rights organizations like Mwatana have had a difficult time to join international stages to voice out the violations of human rights in Yemen. Don’t forget also what I mentioned earlier about Saudi Arabia and WikiLeaks. There is a great effort by the Saudi administration to silence any narrative against Saudis’ involvement in Yemen war. Moreover, Saudi Arabia works sophisticatedly in dominating the media, imposing a good image of its human rights record by hiring PR companies.

All these illustrate the work [Saudi Arabia] is doing to restrict coverage on Yemen and the conflict. However, it’s also important to stress that the Houthis are also not angels. The crackdown the Houthis showed on the press in Yemen is unprecedented. Last month, Yemen’s top investigative journalist, Mohammed al-Absi, was assassinated after he reportedly was poisoned to death. The details of his murder is still investigated, and it remains to be seen if the Houthis were behind his death.

JMEPP: What do you think are the most important developments happening in Yemen that haven’t been widely reported on outside the country?

Nasser: Everything. Yemen’s politics, economics, culture, and all Yemenis’ tragedy are under-reported. The country is in very painful transition on all these levels, and only a tiny bit of it is told about in the media.

JMEPP: When the war in Yemen is over, what conditions do you think need to be in place for independent journalism to flourish?

Nasser: I think it’s going to be a rocky and long road until the war is over. For the time being and for the post-war period, it’s crucial to support civil society organizations in Yemen, and local media groups and individuals, because that’s where all my hopes lay. Support the civil society in all possible ways: financially, logistically, morally, emotionally. Yemen’s civil society … needs the world’s solidarity.

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