Sara Al-Zawqari is a Yemeni broadcast journalist and media consultant, currently working as a media delegate and spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq. In Sana’a, Sara is well-known for having hosted the daily hit radio show “Tea with Milk,” which discussed social issues in a sarcastic and humorous manner.
While the Yemeni media usually broadcasts in classical Arabic, “Tea with Milk” used a street-slang dialect to break all barriers between the program and its audience. The show tackled issues ranging from the very sensitive to the everyday, such as early marriage, kidnapping of foreigners, the black market, dowries, harassment of women, money laundering, violence, racism, political institutions, electricity, littering, and more.
The show began broadcasting in 2013 on the Yemen Times radio station, which was associated with the country’s first English-language newspaper and one of the few independent media outlets in the country. The radio station stopped operating after the Saudi intervention in March 2015, but re-opened this past Ramadan. Sara’s past shows on “Tea with Milk” can be listened to on SoundCloud.
At the start of the Saudi intervention, Sara was in London, where she remained for four months before moving to Saudi Arabia. In this interview, Muftah spoke with Sara about her work and media in Yemen.
Mareike Transfeld: From your perspective, what are the biggest problems with the Yemeni media landscape?
Sara Al-Zawqari: Yemeni media has been playing a negative role in society and adversely affecting local communities. Media has substantial influence on people in Yemen; the public gets its information, news, and almost everything else it knows from the media. During the current conflict, the high illiteracy rate in Yemen has enabled various powerful players to fuel clashes through propaganda and rumors.
Generally, I would describe this situation in one word: BAG (Bias, Attacks, Gap).
BIAS: After the 2011 revolution, there was a spike in media outlets in Yemen. Unfortunately, this did not lead to quality journalism, professionalism, or objectivity. Powerful political parties took advantage of the media vacuum and invested heavily in establishing outlets that promoted their agendas, which solely focused on attacking the opposition. Newspapers, TV stations, websites, and radio turned into battlegrounds between major political parties and religious groups. This created deep divisions in society. People were exposed to one-sided stories, hate speech, and incitement.
A small number of local media outlets were more positive, with programs focused on promoting equality and human rights. But, most of these outlets were limited in reach with few resources.
ATTACKS: In the past year and a half, fifteen journalists have been killed in Yemen, fourteen have been detained by the Houthis, and more than 200 cases of torture, assault, and other violations against journalists have been reported. Many reporters have been forced into hiding in rural areas. A large number of local media outlets have been raided, looted, shut down, or taken over by force. Continuous violations against press freedoms and crackdowns on journalists and media entities remain on going. Silencing these local voices is dangerous and will have major consequences in the long run.
GAP: There is a huge gap between the type of content people really need and what is being delivered on local and regional media platforms targeting Yemenis. Media platforms are focused on their own political agendas, ignoring their audience’s needs and preferences. They do not address the public directly, remain focused only on foreign affairs, and fail to provide any sort of solutions to meet people’s basic needs. This represents a gap between those in influential positions and the public.
If Yemen’s media landscape is to address this problem, media platforms must be able to operate freely from inside and outside the country. These independent channels could change how the media operates in Yemen and compete with “biased media.” In my opinion, if these platforms focused on lifeline programming, awareness, education and social issues, they would succeed because they would be providing information that would be relevant to all Yemenis, regardless of their political or religious ties.
You are a big proponent of community media. What is community media and why do you think it is important for Yemenis today? What do you think Yemenis want to read or hear in the Yemeni news?
There are many forms of community media worldwide. Community media is a platform from the people for the people. It addresses issues raised by the community and is broadcast in the people’s native language. Community platforms rely heavily on two-way communications to produce content that is responsive to their listeners’ concerns. With almost all their messages targeted to a local audience, community media platforms put the public at the center of their communication strategy. This type of media is also very beneficial to governments and politicians, helping them understand how people think and what they want.
Over 6500 people have been killed, and at least 3 million have been displaced in Yemen since March 2015. People are living under terrible conditions. They lack basic amenities, such as electricity, petrol, gas, and, in some areas, food and water. Supporting a family has become very difficult. The unemployment rate shot up dramatically after the Houthis overtook Sana’a in September 2014. Many people lost their jobs or small businesses. The number of young Yemenis that have joined extremist groups has increased tremendously due to a lack of opportunities.
With all these problems and more, what Yemenis really need are solutions. They need practical information that will help them live and confront the challenges of their daily lives. People need information that tells them where to go for medical services and food, information on how to receive or generate electricity, where to find shelter, how to continue their education, how to open a businesses. Basically, they need information on how to keep surviving.
They also need media outlets that promote healthy dialogue between conflicting groups, and reinforce positivity, transparency, peace building, and coexistence. The deteriorating situation has caused many Yemenis to fall into a black hole of depression, frustration, and despair. Yemenis are fed up with news and politics. They are longing for something different to read, watch, and hear. They need hope, positivity, and to be reminded of what makes life worthwhile. In the middle of all the destruction and the war, people are trying their best to live a normal life.
What are some of the challenges to operating a community radio station in Yemen today?
Operating a community radio station is difficult, mostly for operational reasons. Until now, there are no rules or laws that regulate radio operations. Since there is no legislation that permits or forbids opening a private radio station, radio broadcasting remains a grey area. None of the private radio stations in Yemen have licenses to operate and, in theory, anyone can open a station if he/she has the necessary equipment. It is illegal to import radio equipment into the country; this is something one has to work around when opening a station. Because radio broadcasting is not regulated, it is difficult for someone wanting to operate a station to manage radio frequencies. In addition, daily challenges, like a lack of electricity and fuel, make it harder for radios to operate at their maximum capacity.
On top of all this, financial sustainability is a big problem. It is difficult for community radio station to self-finance their operations for the first few years. This is especially true for those relying on sponsorship and advertisement as their main source of income. It is, however, not impossible to operate a radio station in Yemen. There are a number of stations opening now in the capital, such as Barq FM and Grand FM, and I expect many more to follow.
In 2011, many young people like yourself became active in media in order to contribute to the changes taking place in the country. Where are these youth now? Are they still active?
Some decided to work in other sectors, continue their studies, or move to other countries. Some are still vocal, but are relying more on social media to address local issues, like banning Qat, child marriage, freedom of the press, and child soldiers. They use social media because they have lost trust in traditional media, which is biased. Through social media, they have found a place where they can express their views and speak about anything and everything freely. Independent writers and journalists who are jobless have also used social media to share their writing and get instant feedback. With social media the sky is the limit.
Some young people, previously active in media, have joined political parties. Others decided to remain completely silent out of frustration with high levels of corruption, frequent assassinations, and other issues. After September 2014, this silence was also a result of fear. Generally speaking, many youth have been frustrated with the way things have turned out since 2011.
Can you tell us a bit about your new project, Btelefony? How did you develop it? What is the project’s goal? How is it being received by Yemenis?
Btelephony (“with my phone”) is a video platform that showcases positive stories from Yemen. The videos are shot by young videographers using smart phones. The project focuses on enabling talented Yemenis to tell interesting stories by providing them with tools and practical training in mobile filming.
We decided to focus on smart phones, instead of traditional video cameras, because of the security situation in the country. Holding a professional video camera can raise many suspicions, and almost all camera owners avoid filming in public. Smart phones on the other hand are easy to carry, accessible, and safer to use. And the new smart phones have great cameras that can film in high quality.
We began the project with a public campaign on social media where we invited people to share positive photos and videos from Yemen using the Hashtag #بتلفوني (#WithMyPhone). More than 800 photos and videos were shared through the hashtag and are still being shared today.
The project was funded by International Media Support (IMS) and began with a workshop in March 2016, targeting young filmmakers. We also partnered with UNESCO and conducted a second workshop in June 2016 together with journalists. In July 2016, we will start promoting the videos our participants created, across various social media platforms. We are looking forward to seeing how people react.