Wednesday, 8 February 2012


Newspapers subs are quite used to toil under the most ridiculous pressures but not often under the gun. This is what happened to journalists at the At Thawra newspaper in Sanaa, Yemen, after their newsroom was invaded by armed soldiers demanding that they reinstate a picture of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh as a splash on the front page. The newspaper editor, Yassine Al Massoud, who is also the president of the Yemen Journalists’ Syndicate, decided to put an end to the ridiculous cult of political honchos, in particular when they have fallen from grace.

Fanatic supporters of the former president won’t allow it and they summoned the army to first surround, then overrun the offices of the newspaper. When inside, they compelled journalists by force to re-make the front page by inserting the picture of Saleh and an apology. Journalists worked literally with guns to their heads until the edition was printed and ready to hit the newsstands.

Despite having to cope with the most unprecedented acts of thuggery, the union continues to stand by all its members and support them in doing their job as journalists. In a country awash with guns and in the thick of a civil war, it is a minor miracle that journalists continue to go to their newsrooms every day and try to do a normal day’s work.

As well as confronting the hoodlums, the YJS has also being standing up against the “defenders of human rights”. This week, the union is organising a picket of the US embassy in Sanaa to demand that the US administration lifts its objection to the release of their colleague, Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye, who is still behind bar one year after being pardoned by Yemen’s president.

Shaye was kidnapped from his house in the middle of the night in August 2010 and held for weeks without access to a lawyer or his family. While in prison, he was tortured and finally questioned illegally in order to gather evidence to criminalise him. His trial began the following October and he was indicted following fabricated charges as a result of his reporting on Al-Qaeda and his accusations against the Yemeni and US governments. He was sentenced to three years in prison and a travel ban for another two years.

In the first months of the uprising in Yemen, President Saleh released scores of prisoners as a concession, including Shaye. However, President Obama intervened to make sure he stays behind bar. The union asked me to write to US Secretary Hillary Clinton demanding that the US remove their objection to Shaye being released.

The arguments are pretty straightforward. The US administration is giving legitimacy to an unfair trial based on confessions extracted by torture and carried out by a due process that is far from credible. And to continue to force the Yemeni government to keep a journalist in jail, despite being pardoned, throws considerable doubt on the US stand as defender of human rights.

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