In 2012, Vital Voices honored journalist and activist Shatha Al-Harazi of Yemen with the Global Trailblazer Award, along with four other women from the region who played roles in the so-called “Arab Spring.” Shatha recently escaped the violence in her country and fled to Turkey. She offered this reflection on World Press Freedom Day.
From 2011 to 2015 Yemen has faced three major changes that affected women journalists and women, generally. Women reporters were more active and fought to get chances reporting in different fields, especially politics, not just the traditional fields they would usually be assigned to.
Just after 2011, some women reporters were discovered to be good analytical reporters. Some others were gaining experience in investigative journalism, especially around corruption and human rights reporting.
When the National Dialogue Conference took place, I was among other women journalists who participated. Some outcomes included the principles for the new Yemeni constitution, gains for women rights and better media freedoms. There were other general rights and freedoms that would have affected both men and women, if implemented.
Since the militia coup in September 2014 everything turned upside down and all what was achieved stopped. For the first time in Yemen’s modern history women become direct targets for practicing their freedom of expression. Cases of snipers killing or groups abducting women were reported. There were listings of women and men reporters, as a way of shaming them; and a list of people accused of “National Treason,” according to the militia.
I myself received death threats for expressing my political opinions against the militia and reporting their violations. They threatened us with a “fair trial” under a corrupt and hijacked system. Even before September 2014 they were bombing their political opponents’ houses and mosques, and many newspapers have been closed and journalists abducted. This is what they mean by “fair trials.”
Media is what they fear most. Even for one post one might share on social media she/he could simply be abducted. I had the opportunity to escape, even though threats as an activist have always been part of my career, like many Yemeni activists who make a difference. But this time it’s different, these people are just like Al-Qaeda and nothing less, since they commit the crimes thinking it will bring them closer to God.
Foreign media is not allowed any longer in the country so few foreigners are left. Locals who speak English well are taking the job to write for the major international newspapers. It’s hard to make sure of the credibility of the news since citizens are bringing the information and people are taking sides either with the militia or with the armed resistances. It’s hard to verify the information, yet to some extent you can contact people on the ground to verify the information, most of the journalists are becoming activists, and most of the media outlets are getting really biased since they are funded by the countries involved in the war.
Videos and pictures coming from the locals on social media is the main way to get the news, but this won’t continue as the telecommunications system will shut off soon due to the difficulties of getting fuel in the war.
More people will be killed, more violations will continue on both sides and no one will be there to report on it. The international community can always do a lot by first giving a voice to the unheard and defending their rights to speak up.
We are in 2015 and facing the worst lack of press freedom. They are trying to kill the word and that is the last thing left for a nation like Yemen, marked as the poorest nation in the country, and always in conflict. In a country with no real rule of law, press can be the only platform for the people to feel the hope by what the press defend and document – the truth, or at least the voice of the people. People need to hope that one day they can take their documented stories to a decent justice system.
Without having the chance to be heard people can die with no hope of accountability. I myself managed to escape the war and it was a miracle. Yet the threats make me feel weak sometimes, especially since my father is still in Yemen. But I draw strength from my female colleagues who never hesitated to talk and write about the truth – journalists like Samyia al-Aghbary and Fatima al-Aghbary and others who are still inside the country. This conflict will take us hundreds of years backward but it’s a fight for freedom that Yemenis – women and men – are taking equal steps in.