ISTANBUL - Seven years ago, I met a fearless freelance journalist in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, covering weapons trafficking, extreme poverty and al-Qaida. He was arrested and, after a month, released.
The journalist, whose name is being withheld to protect his safety, told me he was beaten in jail, but not to worry. This was normal, and at least he was freed. It was not safe to be a journalist in Yemen, and this was not his first arrest.
Since then, things have gotten worse. Much worse.
Earlier this month, four Yemeni journalists were sentenced to death in a court set up by the Houthis, the group that controls the country’s north and is known formally as Ansar Allah.
Yemeni journalists say harassment, arrests and torture were already forcing the press to self-censor, but now the looming executions are driving people out of the profession.
“One journalist I know now cuts ice and another is a garbage collector,” Essam Alqadasi, a journalist based in Sanaa, said in a phone interview. “Some are so poor they cannot afford medicine.”
What is lost in this onslaught of violence is not just the reporters themselves, Alqadasi said. “What’s lost is the truth.”
Danger from all sides
In 2015, after the Houthis took the capital,and the internationally recognized government fled to the south, a notice appeared on Facebook from their Ministry of Information.
It threatened “strict legal measures and possible closure to any media outlet that stirs discord.” The next day, at least four news agencies in Yemen were raided, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and the country’s once-robust news industry began to dwindle.
In the following years, many news outlets were banned or fell into financial ruin. About 20 journalists were arrested, and many others fled the country or left the business.
Now, nearly all news outlets in Yemen are associated with a military or a political party, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
In the past year, attacks on the press have intensified, said Justin Shilad, a CPJ senior researcher. Reporters are in danger from officials or militias in both the Houthi-controlled north and in the south, which is controlled by the Yemen government and its allies.
“We have seen across the board in Yemen from all sides of the conflict fairly egregious violations of press freedoms in the past year,” Shilad said in a phone interview. “But I think that sentencing four journalists to death is really beyond the pale, even by the standards of this conflict.”
Abdel-Khaleq Amran, Akram al-Walidi, Hareth Hamid and Tawfiq al-Mansouri were sentenced to death after being arrested in 2015 with six other journalists and charged with conspiring with the Houthi’s enemies and "spreading false news.”
All of the men were convicted, but the six were sentenced to time served and future police supervision. They are now awaiting appeal, according to Shilad.
The Yemeni Journalist Syndicate says 35 reporters have been killed by airstrikes and in the crossfire of battles in the past five years of civil war with the southern government and with Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Among them was Voice of America reporter Almigdad Mojalli, who was killed in 2016. The year before, another VOA journalist fled Yemen after receiving threats from authorities.
More than 100,000 people have died in the war and millions have been displaced, data from the Council on Foreign Relations shows.
But it is not just battles killing Yemenis, said Abdul Bari Taher, who has been one of Yemen’s leading journalists for decades.
Roughly half the population is at risk of famine or diseases like cholera, according to the United Nations. The Yemeni health care system has collapsed, and most people do not have access to enough clean water.
“War is chaining us and doubling the risks,” Taher said by phone from his home in Yemen. “It has weakened our ability to do journalism and print newspapers.”
Uproar over sentencing
The journalists sentenced this month were accused of working for media outlets associated with the Islah Party, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. Their trial was not public, and their lawyer was barred from sessions in the final months, according to CPJ.
When the death sentences were announced, press freedom monitors around the world and reporters inside Yemen were outraged and publicly called for a reversal.
Journalist syndicates also condemned the decision as “unjust” and “archaic.” Reporters Without Borders ranks Yemen as 167 of 180 countries on its Press Freedom Index, behind Libya, Egypt and Iraq.
Speaking out against the court could be dangerous, Taher said, but staying silent could be worse. He said the decision lacked “even the bare minimum of justice” and that the trial was grossly unfair.
“If your colleagues face injustice today, it may happen to you tomorrow,” he added.
On April 15, the pro-Houthi news source Saba published an article saying the 10 journalists had confessed and described them as members of “a terrorist media cell.” It said they were guilty of publishing “false and malicious rumors and propaganda, with the intent of weakening the nation’s defense force, public morale, security, and sowing terror among the people.”
The article cited Abdel-Khaleq Amran, one of the men sentenced to death, as the leader but did not describe any other individual’s alleged crimes.
Despite six of them being sentenced to time served, the convicted journalists all remain in prison, according to Shilad of CPJ.
“(Their release) could take up to a few months,” he said. “Most of journalists have suffered significant abuses while in detention.”
Yemeni journalists believe strongly in the role the press plays in a free society and continue reporting despite the danger, said Shilad. But if assaults continue to escalate, more reporters may be forced to quit.
And while journalists in Yemen cannot publish everything they learn, Taher said many produce “relatively independent” news stories that are vital to keeping the public informed.
“We, the journalists, are still here,” he said.