CNN Senior Middle East Affairs Editor
Eight independent newspapers were shut down last week by orders of the Yemeni Ministry of Information. Hundreds of people took to the streets in Sanaa and other major cities to protest the move, according to media reports. Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh accused the newspapers of “harming Yemen’s national unity.” In a televised statement, he said, “Some newspapers use exaggerated slogans under the pretext of democracy and shamelessly promote divisiveness.”
The move comes on the heels of recent news coverage about clashes in the south between security forces and farmers who claim they have been marginalized by the government. The south has been demanding its own Democratic Republic of Yemen since 1994. The separatist rhetoric has escalated in the past few months with groups and tribal leaders calling on the southern region to unify against the government of Ali Abdallah Saleh.
Before the newspaper closure, the US Embassy in Sanaa issued a statement expressing its “concern” over reports of “increasing incidences of political violence in southern regions of Yemen.” It stressed US support for a “unified Yemen” and called on “the Yemeni Government, the political parties, civil society organizations and all concerned citizens of Yemen to engage in dialogue to identify and address legitimate grievances.” The statement concluded with a recommendation for a peaceful resolution, “violence will not resolve these issues.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed its alarm over the situation. "We are concerned about the ongoing ban on independent newspapers and call on the authorities to immediately end this censorship," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "Covering the ongoing conflict in the south is an essential journalistic function, and for authorities to ban this coverage is to criminalize journalism itself."
Yemen’s South and North were unified in 1990 under the Republic of Yemen and President Saleh was elected. In 1994, a civil war erupted and the south declared its independence from the rest of the country. That declaration was not recognized by the international community but that didn’t stop the efforts by many to secede.
To complicate things further, a rise in extremist activity throughout the country threatens any chances of dialogue towards accord or true unity. Yemen is the ancestral home of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. To this day, many groups and tribes remain supportive of bin Laden and his ideology. Last year, there were many attacks claimed by al Qaeda sympathizers in Yemen. The three most visible of these attacks caught the attention of international media.
January 18, 2008: 2 Belgian tourists were killed and 4 other wounded in a machine gun attack. The local al Qaeda of Yemen group claimed responsibility.
March 18, 2008: Militants fired rockets towards the US embassy; one missile missed its target and hit a nearby school instead. 1 police officer and a student were killed as a result and 20 people wounded. Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility.
September 17, 2008: 16 people were killed including an American woman when a suicide car bomb exploded near the US embassy in Yemen’s capital. The Islamic Jihad in Yemen claimed responsibility.
On January 23, 2009, Abu Basser Naser Wuheishi, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee from Yemen, appeared in a video and assumed leadership of a Saudi-Yemeni al Qaeda merger named al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. On the tape, Wuheisi was joined by three other militants including a man identified as the leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. In the video, both men pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden and threaten more attacks against western targets until “all infidels are out of Muslim land.”
(Snap shot from video attached)
Yemen is geographically significant to a number of major international stories. The Gulf of Aden, which covers the entire southern Yemeni border, is the scene of continued pirate activity, and is where the attack on the USS Cole took place in 2000. Across the same Gulf lies Somalia, a country in political and military turmoil and a known haven for al Qaeda and its supporters. To the North of Yemen lies Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom struggling with its own al Qaeda infestation. During his visit to Saudi Arabia, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed with Saudi Assistant Minister of the Interior sending the roughly 100 Yemeni detainees currently in Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation at the Saudi government centers for jihadists.
It is unclear how much independence Yemeni newspapers would have in reporting on any of the above subjects. What is known now is that they’re dark - reporting nothing.
Justifying his government’s move to close down eight independent newspapers, President Saleh said, “We lose nothing by shutting some raucous voices down when they target our national unity.” The syndicate of Yemeni journalists disagrees. Gamal Anam, the syndicate’s spokesperson blames the government for “blindfolding the truth.” He said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, “Through this unfair move, our readers have lost the chance to hear any opinion other than that of the Yemeni government.”
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