Yemen: Government must stop prosecution and harassment of journalists

The internationally recognized government (IRG) of Yemen must end its harassment and prosecution of journalists in areas under its control, including in Taiz and Hadramout governorates, Amnesty International said today.

Judicial authorities have over the past seven months prosecuted at least three journalists for publishing content that was critical of officials and public institutions. A fourth journalist was summoned by the criminal investigation directorate for questioning over a Facebook post in which he was critical of oil sale prices and arbitrarily detained him for around 9 hours.

Journalists should not be treated like criminals simply for being critical of government institutions and employees.

Diana Semaan, Amnesty International

“Journalists should not be treated like criminals simply for being critical of government institutions and employees. These journalists were just doing their job and their speech is protected under international human rights law. The internationally recognized government of Yemen has a responsibility to respect freedom of expression and should drop all charges against them,” said Diana Semaan, Acting Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Targeting journalists and activists for exercising their right to freedom of expression has a chilling effect on society. Its real aim is to silence dissent and deter critical voices.”

In the first half of 2022, the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate recorded 11 cases of attacks, including threats and incitement of violence, against journalists and media outlets, nine cases of detention, and six cases of prosecution and summoning by parties to the conflict. The Syndicate report found that the IRG was responsible for committing 23 of these violations, while the Huthi de facto authorities were responsible for 16.

The charges they faced include “insulting” a public employee, which carries up to two years imprisonment under the Penal Code, mocking army officials, offending a symbol of the state, and disturbing public order.

Under international law, “insult” is not a recognizable offense and does not justify a limitation on freedom of expression. In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee has stated that “the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties”.

Amnesty International opposes laws prohibiting insult or disrespect of heads of state or public figures, the military or other public institutions, flags or symbols – unless it constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

Criticism taken as “insult” criminalized by law

Amnesty International interviewed two lawyers and 10 journalists and activists, six of whom were summoned for questioning, by the criminal investigation directorate or the military intelligence for publishing content critical of the authorities.

Judicial authorities prosecuted two of the journalists under the Penal Code and a court gave them suspended prison sentences in 2022. In one of the cases, Taiz Public Prosecution had charged one journalist in 2019 with “insulting” public and military officials after he published several Facebook posts in which he criticised the military authorities in Taiz for their “thug-like” behaviour and their intimidation of journalists and activists. On 17 May 2022, Sabir Court of First Instance found him guilty and sentenced him to a one-year suspended prison term and a fine under Article 292 of the Penal Code. He said: “This prosecution is for settling political scores. The side that is prosecuting me is the one in control of the army, the security apparatus, and the judiciary.”

Another journalist was sentenced on 21 June 2022 by the Public Funds Courts in Hadramout to a three-month suspended prison term for “insulting a public employee” and “threatening to publish private secrets” citing Articles 172 and 257 of the Penal Code, respectively, after he published an article that was critical of the academic standing of the public university in Hadramout.

He questioned how that could be framed as an offence to a government employee: “what has the Public Prosecution gained from dragging me through court for nearly a year, just because I told the truth which most people agree with?” he told Amnesty International.

Self-censorship as press freedom threatened

One journalist is still facing trial based on trumped-up charges and could face up to at least three years imprisonment if sentenced. He is being tried before the Specialized Criminal Court of First Instance in Hadramout based on trumped up national security-related charges for publishing articles calling on the local authorities in Hadramout to stop using intelligence agents to persecute journalists and calling for the governor to be changed. He told Amnesty International that security agents were regularly stationed outside his house and office in response to him speaking out against the governor in 2019.

Neither the journalist nor his lawyer have been able to access the case file containing the evidence brought against him, in violation of the right to a fair trial.

Two other journalists told Amnesty International they had stopped publishing critical views of the authorities out of fear of persecution. One of them said: “I have resorted to silence and stopped journalism temporarily, but it is a frustrating, bitter and humiliating fate.”

The use of national security laws or defamation laws with the purpose or effect of inhibiting legitimate criticism of government or public officials violates the right to freedom of expression. National security and public order should be precisely defined in law to guard against over-broad or abusive interpretation and application.

“The internationally recognized government of Yemen must immediately end its harassment and prosecution of journalists and respect their right to freedom of expression. It can start by dropping the practice of summoning activists and journalists to security and military agencies and ending the abuse of laws on criminal defamation and national security to suppress dissent. The IRG must also bring national legislation curtailing the right to freedom of expression into line with the international standards,” said Diana Semaan.