Building a Free Press in Yemen

Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber (center, left) was joined by former US Presidential Advisor Dalia Mogahed (center), Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman (center, right) at the London launch of the MBI Al Jaber Media Institute in Sana’a, Yemen (MBI Al Jaber Foundation) Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber (C-L) was joined by former US Presidential Adviser Dalia Mogahed (C), Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman (C-R) at the London launch of the MBI Al Jaber Media Institute in Sana’a, Yemen. (MBI Al Jaber Foundation)

Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber (C-L) was joined by former US Presidential Adviser Dalia Mogahed (C), Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman (C-R) at the London launch of the MBI Al Jaber Media Institute in Sana’a, Yemen. (MBI Al Jaber Foundation)

Gripped by violence and marred by widespread insecurity, in the span of two years Yemen has taken giant steps backwards as far as freedom of speech and the press are concerned. Although we all remember the hundreds of thousands of men and women who came together to reclaim their civil rights from a brutal and despotic regime, two years on in its transition of power, the idea of an independent and free press in the country remains very much in its infancy.

Journalists, both foreign and local, have learned to their detriment that reporting from Yemen can often equate to a dangerous game of Russian roulette, where one needs to be able to maneuver through the many tangled political sensitivities and agendas to remain safe. Very much like politics, journalism in Yemen has become a balancing act, one done without any safety net, above a pit of venomous snakes.

Back in September, Human Rights Watch issued a stern warning to Yemen’s coalition government, calling on the authorities to both address violence against journalists and work toward building strong independent media institutions.

“A spate of attacks on journalists in Yemen, including an unsolved murder, threatens to undermine the growth of media freedoms as the US-backed government enacts pro-democracy reforms. Threats, harassment, physical assault, disappearances and attempted murder are among the attacks cited by journalists and local activists, which President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi had failed to condemn,” the report read.

Activists in Yemen, including Tawakkol Karman, the 2011 Nobel peace prize winner, have been keen to promote a free press, and have been urging state officials to break away from Yemen’s propagandist culture and misinformation tactics. Like others elsewhere, they believe that if Yemen is to rise above despotism and nepotism, its journalists will have to be able to report on facts, free from bias and fear.

Following decades of strong state media censorship, Yemen’s media sector has a long way to go before it can call itself independent.

But help is on the way.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Issa Al Jaber, a millionaire self-made Saudi entrepreneur with a philanthropic streak, announced earlier this month that he would, in cooperation with local Yemen human rights organizations, finance and sponsor a new training center for journalists in Sana’a, the capital.

Yemen’s new MBI Al Jaber Media Institute will offer journalists and students free training courses to promote independent journalism, in keeping with international standards and offer guidance to budding talents. For a country such as Yemen, where violence is a journalist’s occupational hazard, such a center carries the promise of a future free from political shackles, intimidation and censorship: a light at the end of the tunnel.

Because the center will work closely with local media, activists have said they hope change will have knock-on effects throughout the country by offering serious journalists a real alternative and platform. Karman, who herself founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2008, said she fully supports Sheikh Al Jaber in his generous endeavor.

“[The center] will play an important role in the nurturing, training and preparing of real journalists for the real world,” she told reporters at the launch of the center in London in early December.

One can only hope that Yemen’s media center will act as a beacon, a tangible reminder that change starts with the man in the mirror.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.


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