Yemeni newspaper blockaded

A blockade by security forces of the offices of a Yemeni newspaper, aiming to prevent distribution of copies of the paper, has entered its second week.

The action follows the confiscation by the authorities of thousands of copies of Aden-based Arabic daily al-Ayyam from street news stands and distribution points in Sana’a and southern cities, beginning on 30 April.  

In a another development on Monday, security forces surrounded the house of Hisham Basharhail, al-Ayyam’s editor–in-chief, and notified him that he had 48 hours to hand himself over to the authorities in Sana’a. The order is apparently in connection with an incident in February 2008 when armed men shot at his home and security guards retuned fire. One of the attackers was killed and another injured.

Six other newspapers – al-Masdar, al-Watani, ad-Diyar, al-Nedaa, al-Sharea and al-Mostakela –had copies of their newspapers seized on 4 May, following a widely publicized decision by Yemen’s Director of the Press.

The government has accused all seven newspapers of expressing views favourable to the secession of the south in their coverage of protests in the southern part of the country in April.

“It is ironic that the Yemeni government has chosen to intensify its attacks on the press around 3 May, World Press Freedom Day,” said Philip Luther, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

The recent protests in the south of the country happened in the lead-up to 27 April 2009, the date marking the 15th anniversary of the start of the civil war between the Yemeni government in Sana’a and southern separatists. A coalition of political groups known as the Southern Movement, seen by the Yemeni government as calling for the independence of the southern part of the country, is said to be behind them.

In response, the government has deployed security forces to a number of towns and villages. In a particularly concerning development, at least three men connected with the Southern Movement have been arrested and are currently held in detention without access to the outside world, where they are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

Human rights activists in Yemen have said they are outraged by the decision to confiscate newspapers. They have said that they consider the government’s action not only a serious violation of international standards but also of Yemen’s own laws.

Yemeni laws allow confiscation of newspapers only through a judicial order. The Yemeni authorities carried out the confiscation without resorting to the judiciary.

“This clampdown on newspapers appears to be retribution for their coverage of protests and the authorities’ reaction to them,” said Philip Luther. “Such actions are an attack on the right to freedom of expression and must end immediately.”

Amnesty International has, on a number of occasions in recent years, documented its concerns regarding restrictions on freedom of expression in Yemen, in particular the authorities’ targeting of critics of the state using the vaguely worded charge of “undermining national unity”.

Yemen’s human rights record is being reviewed today by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council.