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One year on, Yemeni freelancers feel the effects of Civil War

One year on, Yemeni freelancers feel the effects of Civil War

After a year of conflict, freelance journalists in Yemen say life and work is worse than ever. 

Since the unlikely coalition of Houthi forces and ex-President Saleh took control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a, a year ago, almost all of its media outlets have been seized by force, and their journalists forced into hiding, exile or worse. During this time, 15 have been killed.

Just over a month ago, cameraman Ahmed al-Sheibani was shot dead by a sniper in broad daylight, while holding his camera in Taiz.

Now, after a year of civil war, Yemeni freelancers tell me that life and work is even worse than it was before the revolution. “Under the rule of Saleh, there was a little openness, afforded primarily to papers tied to political parties - and a few independent outlets” says Khaled, a Rory Peck Trust beneficiary living in Sana’a whose name has been changed for safety reasons. “Few papers were able to take really independent positions and still publish weekly - freedom was on the margins.” Khaled remembers.
“The uprising of 2011 was a great moment for independent media: we started by publishing freely on social media sites, which quickly moved to the establishment of independent newspapers.The revolution opened new media horizons. Newspapers began publishing daily - it was a fertile time to work.’
Those promising developments seem a long time ago now. Over the last year, Houthi forces have closed the offices of all independent media in Sana’a: only last month, the offices of “Azal” channel were looted and vacated by forces loyal to the Houthi coalition.

Khaled recounts the moment he was thrown out of the headquartes of ‘al-Masdar’, robbed and arrested by pro-Houthi militia. “They seized everything, and accused me of spying for foreign powers. They said that if I criticised the regime again, they would execute me, and use the constitution as a witness.”
US Freelance photographer Neal Jackson, colleague and friend of renowned Yemeni freelancer al-Migdad Mojalli who was killed by airstrikes in January this year remembers one of their conversations “After days and days of harassment working in the capital, al-Migdad messaged me saying - "Well, it was a very tiring day. now I have to go to have dinner in this stupid darkness using the torch, and then to go to the bed alone.... good night my friend." To me, this set in sharp relief the personal cost of being a courageous reporter in Yemen.”
Freelancers in Yemen no longer have anywhere to work. 530 journalists have lost their jobs since February 2015 according to SEMC, Yemen’s first civil society organisation focussing on media economics.

Neither do they have anyone to represent and protect them in Yemeni society. On February 6th this year, the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate was closed by force, in a long-expected move by Houthi militia.
Left with no options, some freelancers have fled the country, taking the scars of their experiences with them. Freelance writer and commentator Firas Shamsan took refuge in Malaysia, following injury and threats to his life. He knows only too well the personal costs that independent journalists can end up paying for their reportage.

“I remember seeing my friend, a fellow journalist, after he had been arrested and tortured by the Houthis. He was walking barefoot around Sana’a, wearing filthy clothes and raving to himself. Without the right psychological help, journalists turn the fear and pain inwards”.
Many of our beneficiaries are trapped in Yemen, fearing arrest at the airport if they were to try and leave. Some are unable even to seek the relative safety of the countryside as the cost of petrol prices them out of the journey. We have supported freelancers and their families to purchase basic food supplies, make these difficult journeys easier, and have helped them try and stay safe in these unsafe times.
At the end of last month, 80 media students graduated from Aden University. They now face a difficult road as freelance journalists and will need support. We will do as much as we can. 
Austin Cooper is RPT's Researcher for the Middle East and North Africa. 

Thank you to IMS for helping to provide and collate data for this article.
Image: from "The Rise of the Houthis". Safa Al-Ahmad for BBC Arabic (2015)


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