A notable presence at any social gathering, he often arrived dressed in the sarong-like ma’waz or a crisp white thobe, his cheek bulging with the batch of qat he was working on that particular day. He was rarely dull company and was well-liked for his popular articles for McClatchy's, the Christian Science Monitor and many other publications on life in the Arab world's poorest country.
In the month since Baron was deported, he has come to dominate many a qat chew—but as a topic of conversation rather than as an active participant. "It is stupid,” said a friend of Baron's recently at one such event. “What they have done just draws attention to the fact they don't like journalists, rather than shutting them up."
Yet if stemming the flow of media reports coming from Yemen was the aim, Baron’s deportation may well have served its purpose. It may be a coincidence—events in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria have been far more headline-grabbing than those in Yemen of late—but since Baron left Yemen, followed closely by Iona Craig, Yemen correspondent for the Times of London, the number of column inches devoted to the country in the international press has dropped sharply. Had they stayed, it is unlikely that the fuel protests and alleged coup attempt of June 11 would have gone as unremarked upon as they have thus far.
This is not because there aren't any decent journalists, foreign or Yemeni, left. Perhaps it is because those who are still present now worry about sticking their heads above the parapet as Baron and Craig were sometimes wont to do, and because the noise they made, both in print and on Twitter, led foreign editors to pay more attention to what was happening in Yemen. As with many countries that are of peripheral interest to the international media, few big organizations keep permanent staff in Yemen, and it is often the better-known freelancers or stringers who to tend to spark interest in events, even if the local and Arabic-language press has covered the issues well.
Baron is currently in limbo, waiting to find out whether or not he will be allowed to return to Yemen. Part of the problem is working out why he was thrown out in the first place. He was told, he has said, that he was "no longer welcome" in Yemen. But the government has given little explanation for the cancellation of a valid journalist visa. His friends have many theories, but ultimately believe the decision was probably as much some kind of personal vendetta as due to issues over his writing. If that is the case, it makes Baron's deportation doubly sad, not only because of his excellent analysis of the political scene, but also because of the interest his stories generated in Yemen in the English-language press, as well as his nuanced accounts of its political scene.
Deportation is an occupational hazard for journalists all over the world. Nonetheless, it is preferable to the treatment meted out to local journalists, who take enormous risks with their personal safety to write about events at home honestly, or to the fate of many reporters in war zones such as Iraq and Syria. But as big media organizations economize more and more on foreign staff, depending increasingly on poorly protected freelancers whose continued presence is never assured, or on state media and wire reports, the risk that important stories in countries such as Yemen will slip through the cracks increases. Baron's deportation is symbolic of that loss, and Yemen is a poorer place for it.
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.