The press in Yemen has been under siege since conflict broke out in the south of the country in 2009. Eight of the country’s leading independent daily and weekly newspapers, including Al-Ayyam, were banned. The government also imposed informal censorship to prevent reporting about protestors and activists in the south. The old Yemeni regime fell in 2011, but the Al-Ayyam newspaper remains closed.
“By 5 PM it was buzzing like a beehive”, says Bashraheel Hisham Bashraheel, the general manager of Al Ayyam. “By 11 PM the paper was sent to the printing press.” He points out the remnants of the newsroom in a ramshackle white building in Crater, not far from the fish market in the seaport city of Aden.
Another kind of buzz hit the building in May 2009, when government troops loyal to former president Ali Abdollah Saleh spent days firing rocket-propelled grenades and bullets at the newspaper. They also attacked people who were protesting outside against previous violence against Al-Ayyam.
The new Yemen
Now, three years later, all the buzz has disappeared. The paper was effectively shut down in 2009 by the Yemeni government and has not reopened, even though the old regime has been replaced by a government of reconciliation. ‘Together we will build a new Yemen’ was the slogan of Abdurabu Mansour Hadi, the sole candidate in the presidential elections of February 2012.
“Is there a new Yemen? I am not aware of it”, Bashraheel says with a smile. He is not the only one who feels that the promises of the new government have mostly remained just that: promises. Political prisoners for example were supposed to be released months ago, but they are still being held, often in unknown places and circumstances.
“All the lawsuits against journalists are still pending, including against my newspaper”, says Bashraheel. During the attacks, Al-Ayyam editors were arrested and at least two people died: one Al-Ayyam guard and one of the attackers. The latter was alleged killed by an Al-Ayyam employee, who is still in jail. “He is on death row”, says Bashraheel. The newspaper denies he killed the attacker.
The legal fight over the killing is still going on and distracts – the government may like to keep it that way – from the other issue: the closing down of a newspaper because of its reporting. Al-Ayyam used to be one of the most popular independent papers in a country where most of the news media outlets are linked to a political party or a strongman with political aspirations.
Al-Ayyam was established in 1958 by Bashraheel’s grandfather. It was so popular because it reported about issues which were usually not published in Yemen, such as enormous corruption at high government circles, the wars against the Houthi-rebels in the north and the social unrest in the south.
Nageeb Yabli, a former columnist for Al-Ayyam, shows the final copy of the paper, dated 4 May 2009. On the front page, there are photos and blood-stained bodies of people who were killed or wounded in a government crackdown on demonstrators in Radfan, a restive city in the south.
Killing the paper
Al-Ayyam covered the demonstrations and the bloody results extensively. “The president didn’t want these kinds of photos in our newspaper. We told him that if he stopped the killing, we would stop publishing them”, Yabli says. Instead, the president decided to kill the newspaper. Seven other southern newspapers and weeklies were closed down as well.
Since 2007, southern Yemenis have been conducting marches and demonstrations to protest against their treatment by the northern-dominated central government, which was dismissing them from the civil and security services. It was at that time that the Southern Movement (al Hirak) was born.
Bashraheel leans back in his chair, chain-smoking next a photo of his grandfather. “The Southern Movement was actually born here in these offices. We have always told the government that they should listen to the southerners’ complaints. Instead they have used brute force.’
Now, five years later, things have not calmed down in the south. On the contrary, people are getting angrier every day. They feel that the new government still ignores them or treats them as a cash cow. (The south has most of Yemen’s oil, land and sea ports.) Al-Ayyam is just one of the many problems, but a symbolic one.
After previous failed attempts to solve the Al-Ayyam issue, a committee was set up, consisting of a long list of ministers. Bashraheel: “We presented them with 5000 pages of legal documents. They became apprehensive. They thought they could get away with paying 500.000 US dollars in damages, but we calculated that the actual figure so far is around 61 million US dollars.”
Bashraheel says that the committee came with a final offer of 3 million US dollars. He decided to accept it for pragmatic reasons. Yemen is currently trying to start a national dialogue, which is supposed to solve all the country’s problems. Bashraheel thinks it won’t. “The dialogue will be a disaster, and I would rather enter the next civil war with some money in my pocket.” No money has yet been transferred to his family.
Columnist Yabli is not optimistic about the re-opening of his beloved paper either. “It was a political decision to close it. The north is a tribal regime, and it will never change.’ He fishes more old copies of Al-Ayyam out of his ragged linen bag and leaves through them tenderly. “Al-Ayyam is the queen of papers.”