Yemeni human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists face immense barriers to relaying war reporting and rights investigations to international audiences. At home, travel restrictions, digital security risks, and physical attacks make their professions dangerous, if not impossible. Internationally, oversimplified and sectarian-driven ideas about “objectivity” limit how nuanced their reporting can be. Articles and reports deemed comprehensible to international audiences can put an HRD or journalist’s life in danger locally, for example, if they fail to adequately represent all parties involved.
Given the misrepresentation and confusion surrounding the Yemen conflict, it is critical that local experts participate in global dialogue and policy making on Yemen. There are, however, key risks and barriers facing Yemeni HRDs and journalists, as they attempt to communicate conflict developments and human rights violations to the broader world.
Sectarian Narratives & Imposed Standards
For many Western media outlets, the alleged Sunni-Shia binary drives coverage of the Gulf States and Yemen. As most clearly demonstrated by reporting on Yemen and Bahrain, the sectarian narrative is used to explain everything from domestic to regional conflicts. Complex political struggles, legitimate demands for economic reform, and social issues are painted with this broad, Sunni-Shia brush. In the process, local actors – from human rights defenders to armed militias – are often stripped of their agency, and represented as “pawns” of “Sunni” Saudi Arabia or “Shia” Iran.
In a 2015 interview with Muftah, award-winning journalist Safa Al-Ahmed, who has extensively covered the Gulf and Yemen, explained these dynamics:
From political movements in Bahrain and Saudi to the emergence of militias in Yemen, very specific local conflicts have taken on regional implications. The whole notion of a Saudi-Iran proxy war has become a monster on its own. It’s a catchphrase for journalists to use to explain things without supporting it with any evidence.
Many outlets define the conflict in Yemen as “Iran-backed Houthi rebels” against “Saudi-backed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.” This narrative, which disregards other relevant local actors, affects what it means to do “objective” reporting. “Objectivity” becomes less a matter of accuracy, and more about criticizing the Houthis and the Hadi government an equal number of times.
Journalists and HRDs have reported to Front Line Defenders that this (false) binary approach to analyzing Yemen’s war limits how and what they feel able to report. One journalist, who regularly covers human rights violations committed in his home region, said in an interview with Front Line Defenders in April 2016 that foreign news outlets “only want quotes from the two groups they recognize” – meaning the government and the Houthis. This causes problems and risks for him at home:
“If I don’t include quotes from others [actors who are relevant locally], local readers lose respect for me and it can put me in danger. These other groups – armed militias, powerful tribes, things like this – want to know why I didn’t include their perspective in a report on something that, really, has more to do with them than the government or the Houthis.”
Alternatively, others say regardless of international media tropes about Yemen, domestic dynamics in the country compel them to adhere to a one-for-one system of critiques. Multiple HRDs and journalists have said that after publishing a report on a Houthi attack, they feel compelled to immediately issue a similar report on violence committed by government forces, even if it has little to do with their area of expertise.
Some HRDs report that this false, sectarian-driven notion of “objectivity” has created increased risks for themselves and their families. “I have to keep track of how many tweets I post about violence committed by both groups,” one HRD in Yemen told Front Line Defenders. He continued:
“Not all attacks fit perfectly into either category, but I know this is how people will see it. I don’t always have access to witnessing first hand violations committed by a certain group, but I’m still expected to report on it to ‘stay balanced.’ The real problem, though, is that now, instead of just one group wanting to kill me, I get death threats from both. To be honest, I think I’d rather not be ‘objective’ if it means both sides threaten my family every week.”
As one Yemeni HRD explained in a recent interview with Front Line Defenders, “if you’re truly objective, you have very, very few friends. In Yemen, this means your life’s at risk.”
Digital Security & Communication Strategies
For HRDs working to document and publicize human rights violations in Yemen, safely communicating with one another and external support networks is key. According to Front Line Defenders’ digital security experts on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, HRDs in Yemen are particularly in need of: support in how to back-up their information in case of destruction or theft; how to document, record, and share information using secure practices and tools; and which applications and practices to use to communicate safely. Some of the more secure communication channels are occasionally blocked in Yemen, including the Signal messaging app, which Front Line Defenders recommends for human rights defenders.
Yemeni HRDs and journalists are also in need of assistance when it comes to developing media contacts and best practices for reporting. One of the most common complaints from Yemeni human rights defenders, who are risking their personal safety on nearly every fact-finding mission they take, is that they are unable to disseminate their content to international media outlets. While several factors may account for this problem, including Western media’s disinterest in the Yemen conflict, information on how to package and present news reports to the media is critical for Yemeni journalists and HRDs.
As a result of the conflict, it has become difficult to provide HRDs and reporters with the skills and information to address these issues. Front Line Defenders’ digital security consultant for the MENA region explains that, since the start of the Yemen war, the organization’s planned support and workshops for Yemeni HRDs have been increasingly difficult to carry out. For HRDs, even traveling to workshops organized outside of Yemen can create security risks with the government or other parties.
A Middle Eastern country that Front Line Defenders initially considered as a possible site for security workshop was taken out of the running, after an increase in detention and interrogation of Yemeni activists arriving at its airport. There were also concerns the country in question was relaying information obtained from interrogated activists, either to the Yemeni government or other groups in Yemen.
Physical Threats & Restricted Access
Yemeni HRDs face immense threats to their physical well being, including arrest, attacks, armed raids, beatings in detention, and killings. Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator for the MENA region, Moataz El Fegiery, explains,” In addition to targeted attacks, Yemeni HRDs also work in an environment in which everyone is at risk by virtue of the village they live in.”
An air strike that destroys a human rights defender’s home may not be intentional or aimed at stopping her human rights work, but it has the same effect – preventing her from undertaking her research and often forcing her into survival mode. El Fegiery explains:
Protection for HRDs in conflict zones is very different than for those working in even the most threatening, restricted, but non-conflict environments. In addition to human rights advocacy, HRDs in war zones need basic humanitarian support along side other civilians.
Travel & Access
With the many restrictions on accessing Yemen, international organizations supporting Yemeni human rights defenders and journalists often cannot witness and learn, first-hand, about the threats and persecution they are facing. Even more critically, HRDs are themselves often unable to travel out of Yemen to share their reporting and experiences inside the country.
As one digital security consultant explained to Front Line Defenders, even where HRDs and journalists are able to travel outside Yemen, they often face harassment upon returning to the country:
If HRDs fly back into Sana’a, it requires a good relationship with – or track record of favorable reporting on – the Houthi groups who control the area. If HRDs coming back through Sana’a have been outspoken about Houthi rights abuses in the past, they are likely to be targeted, detained, or have the their passports confiscated at the airport. Similarly, if HRDs fly back through Aden, they risk being targeted if they’ve been critical of government rights abuses in the past, and are thus labeled a ‘Houthi supporter.’
Human rights defenders and journalists flying back to Yemen do not always have the option of determining which airport they fly back into. Front Line Defenders has received reports of HRDs targeted at both airports in the past year.
Speaking for Themselves
The barriers faced by Yemeni HRDs and journalists in communicating news and human rights violations in Yemen are immense. Unable to travel out of the country, they lose out on skill building, networking, and security training that could enhance their communication abilities. At the conference this paper was drafted for, multiple chairs assigned to Yemeni HRDs and journalists were empty, following visa denials and travel restrictions imposed at airport.
To begin addressing the severe gap in coverage from, by, and featuring local HRDs and journalists, media outlets need to actively seek sound bites, quotes, and expertise from Yemeni activists and journalists who are gathering and analyzing information in their own communities, towns, and regions.
Yemeni HRDs and journalists are in need of diverse, creative support to safely communicate their first-hand reporting, investigations, and expertise on the country. In raising the profile of their work by featuring more of it, international media outlets can make valuable contributions to this cause.
*For their personal safety, the names of various sources in this article have been withheld.