Yemen’s war has crushed the little freedom of speech that its journalists once had. Dozens of reporters have been killed, kidnapped, forcibly disappeared, or put on death row. Out of 180 countries, Reporters Without Borders ranked Yemen 167th. And yet, some brave Yemeni journalists continue to undertake vital investigative journalism. Putting their lives at risk, these people go beyond reporting everyday events and work to uncover the illicit activities of the rich and powerful. As a key tool for achieving political and economic transparency, award-winning reporter Aseel Saria argues that investigative journalism holds the potential to contribute to sustainable peace and should be better supported by the international community.
Investigative journalism is a powerful tool when used right. In Yemen, establishing institutions that support this sort of reporting could, for example, promote a culture of transparency that would be a deterrent to warring parties who currently violate human rights, civic rights, women’s rights and children’s rights with near impunity. This means supporting the country’s nascent cohort of investigative journalists, even amid significant challenges on the ground, is vital for Yemen’s future.
Of course, exposing human rights violations and corruption requires highly professional and rigorous reporting. Yemen has become a place where outlaws and armed groups do as they please. So, in order for journalism to be effective in pressing for true accountability, it must meet high international standards. To level-up their skills and rise to the challenge, Yemeni reporters need hands-on practical training, funding and support from international media networks.
Although investigative journalism is not yet very well established in the Yemeni media scene, some journalists have already received international recognition for their work. For example, journalist Muhammad al-Hasani won the ARIJ Forum’s 2020 award for his report “Quarantine Stations in Yemen: The Great Escape”. The story looked at the corruption surrounding coronavirus quarantining measures by the Houthi and IRG authorities, uncovering the ease with which individuals suspected of being infected with the coronavirus avoided quarantine.
But journalism does not have to win awards to be highly effective in creating change on the ground. “Travel document”, a report produced by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and broadcasted by the German Deutsche Welle network, highlighted the corruption Yemenis faced when trying to attain national documents from authorities. Forced to pay huge sums that are often outside their means, they are forced to turn to the black market to obtain state documents such as passports. The results of the investigation pressured Houthi authorities in Sana’a to tighten the procedures required to obtain such documents and clamp down on corruption.
Journalists have also uncovered human rights violations committed by the parties to the conflict and helped document and preserve evidence that will be crucial for an eventual post-conflict transitional justice process. For example, an investigative report titled “Children under the guillotine“, produced by the ARIJ network in 2017, revealed that the Houthi-run judiciary were sentencing children to death, in contradiction to the Yemeni constitution and laws. The report generated so much international media that the judicial authorities were pressured into revoking the death sentences and the prosecution of children was reviewed.
Yemeni investigative journalists have benefited greatly from cooperating with international networks, such as the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, which has provided valuable training in investigative journalism. Also of particular note, as the above section makes clear, is the ARIJ network. Founded in 2005 in Jordan, it helps journalists across the Middle East and North Africa to produce high-quality, independent, professional work by organizing training workshops, funding investigations, providing supervision and connecting writers with Arab and international publishing platforms.
ARIJ started working in Yemen in 2007, when it trained dozens of journalists, and later helped to establish an investigative unit at al-Thawra Press newspaper in 2013. Seeking to strengthen investigative journalism in the fragile political transition following the 2011 uprising, ARIJ provided technical and professional support to newly trained journalists at the paper. However, the onset of hostilities in late 2014 meant this nucleus of professionals were unable to influence other media outlets to also establish investigative units as originally planned.
Nevertheless, the country’s reporters continued to self-organize and in 2019, the Yemeni Network for Investigative Journalists was launched. Based on the model of ARIJ, it aims to develop local investigative journalists and help them to monitor rights abuses and corruption and seek accountability. On top of training, the network also provides funding, legal and advisory support and helps journalists publish their work more widely.
The media environment in Yemen certainly does not lend itself to such a high-risk form of journalism. Reporters are regularly kidnapped, arrested, and silenced and several journalists were last year put on death row by Houthi authorities in Sanaa on politically motivated charges. Many do not want to risk exposing themselves or their sources, or face being arrested under accusations of espionage.
Further, the fragmentation of the media landscape along political lines has made independent reporting difficult. The economic crisis is increasingly making journalists financially reliant on conflict actors, who are willing to pay them to write stories that influence public opinion in their favor. To be truly free of outside influence, reporters often have to find independent platforms to publish their work. The significant cost involved with this is a huge deterrent given many people are not able to feed themselves or their families properly.
Finally, most Yemeni journalists lack the skills to produce high-quality investigations, and even when they do, accessing the required information can be very challenging. Records are often not available, or are simply not made available, despite the fact that the government passed a Right to Information law in 2012.
In spite of these challenges, the groundwork laid by ARIJ, Friedrich-Ebert Foundation and other organizations in Yemen has demonstrated that a hands-on and direct approach can help to develop the necessary skills. What is needed now is courageous leadership within the media landscape and independent funding to take Yemen’s investigative journalists to the next level.
Investigative journalism requires time and – most importantly in war-torn Yemen – money. Networks between Yemeni journalists and between Yemenis and the international media as well as organizations such as ARIJ are crucial. Not only does this bring the necessary funding and technical support, but it can also amplify the results of investigations on international platforms such as Deutsche Welle.
More than 10 years after the birth of investigative journalism in Yemen, it is now time to enable investigative journalists to grow up. They need advanced training in producing accredited investigations on open sources, artificial intelligence, storytelling, mobile journalism, and more.
Given the dangers Yemeni journalists are subjected to, they also need training in digital security, secure communication, protection of sources and more to help keep themselves and their sources safe. Additionally, the international community and groups such as Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, must continue to press all parties to the conflict to allow journalists to work unhindered. Putting journalists on death row for simply doing their job must remain a red line, even in a conflict-ridden country like ours.
Author bio: Aseel Saria is a Yemeni journalist and filmmaker. In 2017, he worked as a reporter for Extra News TV in Yemen. He has produced journalistic investigations in cooperation with ARIJ that have been broadcast on channels including Deutsche Welle and Vice Arabia. In 2019, Aseel won the ARIJ Prize for best Arab multimedia investigation for his report “Corrupt Aid under UN supervision”.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
Translator : Amal Abdullah
Editor : Mareike Transfeld
Copy Editor : Venetia Rainey
Photographer : Shutterstock
YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.
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