By Ali Saeed
Yemeni journalists writing on corruption began 2013 with controversy over their published articles. Since January, two reporters have been sent to court over their pieces that stirred wide public discussions.
Husam Ashour, a soft-spoken journalist in Hadramout province, around 1,000 km east of the capital Sana’a, reports for the independent local news website newsyemen.net and Al-Nida independent weekly newspaper. On April 2, he was given a three-month suspended sentence and ordered to pay a fine of YR 300,000 (around USD 1,400) for an anti-corruption article he wrote on May 3, 2011.
Ashour’s story accused the manager of a local branch of the Reconstruction Fund for Hadramout and Mahra Provinces of financial and administrative corruption. After the publication of the article, the Public Prosecutor instructed the Public Money Prosecution in Hadramout to investigate the case with the official and the concerned offices. However, it has not been carried out yet.
Ashour wrote: “The Head of the influential group [The Fund] granted the female official exceeding authority and privileges that directors of the branch themselves do not have since there is a hot line linking her directly to him where she is valid to do whatever she wants with no respect to her managers.”
In response, the manager of the government-run body filed a lawsuit against Ashour accusing him of slander. His lawyer, Lutfi Al-Kuthiri told La Voix du Yémen that the prosecution charged his client with “insulting a public servant in a press article.” Attempts to reach the Fund’s employees for comment were not successful.
In a phone conversation with La Voix du Yémen, the journalist explained that this was just a vexatious suit to silence him from writing on corruption. “This is part of a campaign that targets reporters to silence and frighten them to not cover corruption issues,” said Ashour.
Ashour believes that corruption mafias in the country fight for their existence and if the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate and all other organizations responsible for defending freedom of expression did not exist, they would be forced to stop writing on corruption as their lives would be at risk.
Al-Kuthiri also commented that even though Ashour was still free because of the suspended sentence, if another party sued him on a similar case, it would be added to the new condemnation.
“This is an alarming threat against the press freedom and if this is not stopped, all other journalists will be silenced the same way,” he said.
The lawyer said that they appealed the sentence because the judge neither read the reasons for the sentence nor provided them with a copy of the judgment.
“Whatever happens to me I will not stop reporting corruption cases as long as I believe in the mission of journalism,” concluded Ashour.
NGO sues another journalist over anti-corruption article
The relationship of anti-corruption journalists also seems to deteriorate with some civil society organizations. Last month the Islah Charity Society, an NGO affiliated to the Islah party sued two journalists Mohammed Al-Absi and Mohammed Aysh, the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Oula Independent Daily Newspaper, for slander and damaging its reputation.
In last November, Al-Absi wrote an investigative report for Al-Oula Newspaper on the financial and administrative corruption of local NGOs affiliated to the Islah party. He described their misuse of aid money provided by the Qatar Red Crescent to treat injured protesters who were wounded in 2011 during the peaceful uprising that removed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.
Salah Al-Nono, from the media department of the Islah Charity Society told La Voix du Yémen that Al-Absi published a piece that included false statements and incorrect information.“The case now is at the court and it will proceed according to the law,” he said.
Al-Absi and Aysh already appeared twice in front of the Yemen’s Press and Publications Court for hearings on April 22 and April 29. The defense asked to dismiss the case but the trial was postponed until May 13.
Al-Absi said during an interview with La Voix du Yémen that he published an investigative story based on documents that proves the corruption practiced by the Change Square Field Hospital, the Wafa Foundation and the Medical Charitable Organization. All three entities are affiliated to the Islah party through the Islah Charity Society, according to Al-Absi.
He explained that these groups, who work solely on the issue of medical treatment for injured protesters, have mismanaged each month between 1.4 and 2 million dollars aid money the Qatar Red Crescent provided for free medical service. As for the Islah Charity Society, they deny these claims.
Following the publication of Al-Absi’s article, “the wounded protesters of the popular revolution sued the government for not taking its responsibility in providing medical treatment and care for them,” explained Ahmed Saif, Head of the Revolution Salvation Front.
He added that the article inspired the injured protesters to organize sit-ins against the government for letting NGOs misuse funds allocated for their treatment.
While the outcome of the trial remains uncertain, Al-Absi already has some suspicions about it. “What concerns me is that the head of the Islah Charity Society [Judge Murshed Al-Arashani] is the minister of justice which raises doubts about a fair trial process,” said Al-Absi.
He believes that his case might be politicized to force him to stop reporting on corruption issues as his blog is one of the few in the country with constant information on corruption supported by sensitive government documents. For example, he had access to over 10,000 classified documents by the Yemeni Defense Ministry that disclose the six rounds of the Saada war, the war on Al-Qaeda as well as the rampant corruption of Yemen’s army.
He added that one member of the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate Council tried to convince him of writing an apology letter in order for the suit to be withdrawn from the court. Al-Absi declined the offer.
“I prefer to be jailed rather than writing a short apology,” said Al-Absi. “If I was imprisoned, all the 10,000 classified documents on the Yemeni army would be published in one click.”
Journalists threatened over corruption articles
Most of the Yemenis are aware of the rampant corruption in the country and they are often willing to talk about different conspiracy theories. According to a survey published by the Yemen Polling Center, 41.97 % of the population feels that the fight against corruption is getting worse. However there are very few investigative reports in Yemen, sometimes by lack of training, fear of repercussions and difficulty to get information despite the access to information law that was passed a year ago. Thus, corruption seems to be the red line that journalists cannot cross.
Unfortunately, these cases against Ashour, Al-Absi or Aysh are not the only ones. The manager of Al-Saeeda satellite T.V. channel in Taiz province, Mohammed Maresh, received a death threat few months ago after collecting documents on corruption issues. The reporter of Al-Sahwa Newspaper in Al-Dhale’ province, Nasr Al-Masa’di also received a death threat from the former manager of CAC Bank after publishing corruption stories accusing him.
In general, journalists in Yemen are still working in an unsafe environment where 135 violations were recorded in 2012 against reporters, according to a report by the Women Journalists Without Chains organization, a local NGO specialized on the press and speech freedoms. In 2011, seven media workers were killed during the revolution against Saleh’s rule.
The organization says that in 2012, 34 journalists received death threats because of their work; two of them because of anti-corruption articles. Yemen ranks at the 169th position on 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom index 2013.Français
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