By Asma Al-Mohattwari
From rights violations to low salaries, Yemeni journalists have increasingly faced challenges when it comes to carrying out their work. At the same time, journalists have accused Yemeni media institutions of having failed to respect their rights or meet their demands for reform.
The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) is a legal professional association designed to focus on the rights of all Yemeni journalists. The stated aim of the YJS is to protect journalists’ integrity and provide them with a union to protect their material and moral rights; on the professional side, to help enable journalists to promote values of freedom, democracy and justice in the public sphere.
In recent times, however, the YJS has been perceived to be helpless when it comes to making any perceivable changes in the lives of journalists, and perhaps most of all in providing safeguards for them.
While the YJS held four general conferences – the most recent held in 2009 – to discuss the defense of journalists’ rights and freedom of the press, most journalists continued to receive threats in response to their writings, while also receiving extremely low compensation for their work.
In comparing the quality of press freedom and journalists’ rights in Yemen with those in other countries, Yemen was classified as one of the worst. In 2009, Reporters Without Borders ranked Yemen 169th out of 179 countries in its 11th annual press freedom index.
Dr. Adel Mohsen, Director of Political Programs and Vice Chairman of the Committee of Journalists in Aden, said that many journalists are exposed to arbitrary yet serious consequences for writing; YJS has been able to little to nothing for them.
“We’re talking about what isn’t applied in reality; what the Syndicate does is hold some courses and meetings and select committees for journalists in different institutions. However, these committees have failed to achieve any of the journalists’ demands,” said Mohsen.
Even though a law to protect journalists’ freedom is already present in the Yemeni Constitution, it is not applied with any consistency.
Abdullah Al-Kohlani, Chairman of Al-Thawra newspaper’s financial section, explained that journalists require actively-enforced legislation in order for them to feel protected from verbal or physical attacks. He added that journalists should have suitable working conditions, in which they can deliver reports accurately and without corrupt influences, whether from inside or outside their offices.
In addition to restrictions on their freedom to perform tasks, journalists also suffer from a lack of financial compensation. The income issue, which often compels journalists to seek other sources of money, is also seen by many to negatively affect the integrity of journalism in Yemen.
The Chairman of Saba News Agency’s union committee, Baraka Khamis, said that the most significant problem faced by journalists is their lack of income.
“Chairman of the Union Committee is merely a title and didn’t give me any ability to find solutions for journalists’ problems. We’re demanding that rules and laws be activated inside institutions,” she said.
When journalists are forced to find other sources of income, it is seen to affect their credibility. Mohsen said that when a journalist is directed to criticize something and obtain information, he often goes directly to certain officials. The journalist will then often receive some form of financial compensation for focusing not on negatives but positives.
Mohsen suggested that if journalists received their rights from their news companies and institutions, they would speak bravely and not fear anyone. They would, in essence, be able to describe negative realities which would contribute to genuine, positive changes in society.
Although the YJS’ Fourth General Conference came to the conclusion that a committee must be formed, to then amend the syndicate’s procedural rules and thereby improve the state of journalists’ rights and freedoms, nothing has yet been achieved in this regard.
Journalist Mohammed Thabet said in response, “That means the Fourth General Conference failed… So how can we hold a fifth conference when we didn’t achieve the aims of the last?”
Marwan Damaj, Secretary General of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, said that the best way to protect the syndicate and not cause more problems would be to move on to the Fifth General Conference, scheduled to take place later this year, on time.
“The fifth general conference will focus on restructuring the syndicate and giving more power to branches,” said Damaj.