Sunday, 22 April 2012


Being a journalist in a dysfunctional country can be mindboggling. These were my first impressions as I landed last week in the middle of the night at Sana’a airport which, only weeks before, was seized by air force boss General al-Ahmar who refused to stand down after being sacked and reportedly threatened to shoot down any planes using the airport unless he was reinstated. Being checked once by the official police control at the terminal, then again a few yards away by another authority loyal to the deposed president Saleh, gives you an instant foretaste of the chaos that is gripping the country. We were lucky that we could visit our union during a lull but the dark deserted roads brimming with armed militiamen, soldiers and tribesmen were a sign that the suspension of hostilities could be deceptive.

The Yemeni spring had its own character. Despite a widespread and violent uprising it has yet to deliver democracy and the country is still tottering on the verge of a bigger conflagration with vast swathes of the country completely outside state’s control, all the parties including rebel tribes vying for power armed to the teeth, former President’s regime, including his family members, still deeply entrenched, and with the US secret drone war failing to quell Al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen which has seized big chunks of the south of the country.

While the very future of the country still in the air, it seemed utterly surreal to sit down with journalists’ representatives for two days to discuss and plot the future of their union. They represented everybody, not only the core of journalists working in the capital Sana’a but also those in the remotest parts, Hadramout, Hudaidah, Aden and Taiz branches. There were representatives of the Saba news agency which ceased to exist after militias raised it to the ground and ransacked its equipment and archives. Hundreds of its journalists have been on garden leave for several months waiting to be re-employed. There were representatives of the army’s 26 September newspaper which until a while ago were wearing uniforms. Most importantly, they were the new workplace reps, a phenomenon that is springing up in many media with the help of the IFJ.

Despite the difficult conditions they endured for months, including attacks by snipers, armed siege, and even ransacking of their workplaces, Yemeni journalists were in a good shape, brimming with enthusiasm and keen to be key players in the building of their democracy. They lost five of their colleagues, many murdered by snipers, and they are still helping several others recover from their wounds, but on the whole the morale was exceptionally high. Far from feeling distressed and helpless after months of mistreatment, they were oozing with confidence as they discussed a new constitution for their union, their strategy in confronting the new political environment and preparing their lobbying for decent media laws, a public service media and how to train their workplace reps to start negotiating collective agreement and usher in decent working conditions.

The union emerged intact out of its ordeal as they passed with distinction the test of standing up for each other no matter their political allegiance. They wanted me to meet the country’s new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, which I did, to remind him of his government’s responsibility to protect journalists, involve them in the discussion over the future shape of journalism and the media landscape and also convey to him specific demands regarding the future of the journalists who worked at the Saba news agency and urge him to release their colleague AbdelHadi Al Shaye, pardoned by the former president but kept behind bars for an indefinite period at the behest of the US administration for alleged links with al Qaida. President Hadi promised to act swiftly and turn the page on this episode.

I welcomed his promises but they must turn into reality and fast, and we are looking forward to seeing him take meaningful and sustainable action in defence of journalists and in support of their rights.

Our colleagues in Yemen have proved that despite chilling ordeals IFJ unions can maintain their unity and stand up to defend their members. Now they are confident they can build a strong fighting union and I appeal to all IFJ unions to help them until their rights are restored and the impunity which tried to reduced them to silence is defeated.

Promises, promises

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