Amnesty International has called on the Yemeni authorities to end their crackdown on the media after one dissenting journalist was jailed and another arrested this week.
Hussein Mohammed al-Leswas, 25, was sentenced to one year in jail by the press court in the capital Sana’a on Sunday for “defamation of a public official”, among other charges, after he wrote articles critical of the government.
The following day, another journalist was arrested for holding a placard calling for al-Leswas’s release. ‘Abdul Salam Mutbeq, a newspaper editor, was detained on Monday for raising the placard at an official event celebrating Yemeni unity in al-Baydah, southern Yemen.
Hussein Mohammed al-Leswas was convicted following articles he wrote in early 2009 accusing the state-owned electricity company of mismanagement. The journalist, who raised further concerns about corruption in al-Baydah’s local administration, has also been banned from reporting.
“This unjust conviction is the latest example of the Yemeni authorities’ crackdown on journalists and appears to reflect growing government intolerance of media and other peaceful criticism of the authorities,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Defamation is a criminal offence under Yemen’s Press and Publications Law. The offence is vaguely defined and can readily be used to prosecute and imprison peaceful critics of the government.
“It appears that Hussein Mohammed al-Leswas has been imprisoned solely because of his peaceful criticism of the authorities and that ‘Abdul Salam Mutbeq is in detention simply for expressing solidarity with his fellow journalist,” said Philip Luther.
“If so, they are both prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Independent media in Yemen has come under sustained attack amid unrest in the south of the country, where a a loose coalition known as the Southern Movement has been organizing protests over perceived government discrimination against southerners. Many factions of the movement call for the independence of the south from the unified Republic of Yemen.
The authorities have arrested scores of peaceful protesters and also targeted journalists - storming newspaper offices, blocking distribution of newspapers and making several arrests.
In the northern Sa’dah region, there have been recurrent armed clashes between government security forces and followers of the late Shi’a cleric Hussein al-Huthi. Journalists reporting on the conflict have been targeted by the authorities.
These include Muhammad al-Maqalih, who is facing charges of “defaming the President”, broadcasting information against security forces, and supporting followers of the cleric Hussein al-Huthi. The last two charges carry the death penalty.
Al-Maqalih, a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party and the editor of its website, was abducted by security officials in September 2009 and held until February in incommunicado detention, during which time he says he was beaten and threatened with execution. He was released in March, pending trial.
Human rights activists in Yemen suspect his detention was linked to his criticism of the army’s killing of civilians in Sa’dah, which was published on the Socialist Party’s website.