December 8, 2021

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Yemen: Journalists Fear For Their Lives

It happened on Tuesday morning, two weeks ago. The journalists Rasha Abdullah al-Hazari and her husband Mahmud al-Utmi were about to drive to a hospital in Aden for a check-up on Rasha’s pregnancy.

But when the couple got into their car, a car bomb exploded. Rasha died on the spot, along with her unborn baby. Her heavily injured husband was taken to the hospital. He survived.

“Rasha was such a lovely young woman, only in her mid-twenties. I never thought she could become a victim of an attack,” says Asma A., a good friend of the couple. Asma A. is a fellow journalist who does not want to see her real name published for security reasons.

Before the car bomb, Mahmud al-Utmi used to freelance for the Emirati television station Al-Ain. Unconfirmed sources say that he had also worked for Saudi media outlets in which he had reported critically on the Huthis. More specifically, he is said to have documented alleged human rights abuses.

The couple had already left Sanaa out of concern for his safety and had moved to Aden. Acquaintances and observers assume the attack was actually aimed at him.

“I still cannot fathom that Rasha was killed in such a brutal way. She only occasionally worked as a photojournalist or accompanied her husband for reports,” Asma A. remembers in tears.

Mahmud al-Utmi is now caring for his firstborn son Jawad, who was with his grandparents at the time of the attack.

Threats from every faction

Yemeni journalists have been reporting on the collapse of their country since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown in the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2012.

For the past seven years, a civil war has been raging in Yemen, which is fueled by foreign powers.

A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been supporting the country’s government since 2015.

However, Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy Iran has been backing the opposing Huthi rebels, who now control large parts of the country — including the actual capital, Sanaa.

The majority of Yemeni government officials have moved to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Aden, which is around 400 kilometers (248 miles) south of Sanaa, however, has been administered by separatists as part of a so-called Southern Transitional Council since 2020.

This United Arab Emirates-backed body has repeatedly clashed with the government over control of the south.

In turn, Aden has been targeted ever since the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi settled there after the Huthis drove it out of Sanaa.

In addition, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or “Islamic State” (IS) seek to expand their influence amid the chaos.

“Yemen’s journalists are targeted by all political factions,” says Asma A., adding “if you take a clear political stance in your reporting, you may as well expect to be killed or arrested.”

‘Barely any protection for journalists’

“Journalists are often perceived as part of a conflict party rather than as civilian observers,” Christopher Resch, press officer for Reporters Without Borders (RoG) in Berlin, told DW on the phone. “As a result, they experience barely any protection.”

Yemen currently ranks 169 out of 180 on RoG’s press freedom rankings.

According to RoG, at least four journalists have been killed in 2021: Three of them have died in an attack on a convoy of cars belonging to the governor of Aden on October 10; Rasha was the fourth.

Moreover, numerous journalists are currently in detention.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 19 journalists have been killed in Yemen since 2014.

Aden is particularly dangerous

“All four journalists who were killed this year have died in the Aden region,” Resch said. He added that “several reports suggested that the Huthis were responsible for the acts, as they are trying to extend their power to this part of the country.”

Yet, as Resch points out, it is also extremely dangerous to work as a journalist in other parts of the country since it is not only the Huthis who torture, arrest or issue death sentences against journalists.

So far, the Huthis have denied being behind the attack on the journalist couple in Aden.

Asma A., the couple’s journalist friend, however, cannot let go of what happened. She, too, used to live in Sanaa where she reported for various media, including international outlets.

“But eventually, I could no longer leave the house with a camera, let alone conduct interviews on the street,” she told DW on the phone. It had become too dangerous. “I could have worked safely with a permit only. But to get it, I would have had to commit to taking sides politically. I didn’t want to do that. My reports were always balanced,” she said.

Escape to exile

In addition to threats from political factions, the fighting, bombings and the poor economic and humanitarian situation exacerbate the daily work of journalists.

TV stations are closing down — and those who do have work usually earn little money. For many journalists, exile is the only viable option — a decision that comes with its own challenges.

After all, not all journalists are able to find work abroad, and moreover, they don’t know what to expect when they return.

In the meantime, Asma A. has also left the country.

“I no longer felt safe. Moreover, I could no longer bear all the suffering and misery I saw as a reporter. For years I have been reporting on death and violence. This has done something to me. I need a break to take care of my mental health,” she told DW.

The Yemeni journalist Mohammed A., who does not want to give his real name either, also had to leave Sanaa with his family. However, they decided to stay in Yemen. “I, could no longer stand the psychological pressure in Sanaa. So many of my friends and colleagues were arrested or sentenced to death. I ended up just staying at home out of concern for our safety,” he told DW via mail. “The voice of freedom from Sanaa has not existed for a long time,” he said.

No legal protection

Both, Asma A. and Mohammed A. criticize that there is no legal protection for journalists in Yemen.

In October, the UN Human Rights Council voted against extending the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE). The GEE had monitored attacks and abuses in Yemen.

The decision has sparked outrage among many experts as this group was considered a crucial tool for holding Yemeni parties accountable — including for potential war crimes.

“I ran out of ideas how to help journalists in Yemen,” says Asma A. “In my honest opinion, all political parties are criminals as they all carry weapons, they all threaten journalists, and they restrict our work and the freedom of the press.”

She would like to see Yemeni journalists receive more psychological support.

This view is echoed by RoG’s Christopher Resch: “There has to be the possibility for Yemeni journalists to leave the country safely in case of an acute threat and find refuge in another country, such as Germany.”

Asma A. said she doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to Yemen. The murder of her friend Rasha has pushed a possible return into the distant future.

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