On April 11 2020, four journalists were sentenced to death by the Houthi-led rebel Government in Yemen. The journalists were convicted of spying and “broadcasting rumours, fake news, and statements in support of the enemy Saudi Arabia.” The situation has attracted an outpouring of concern from over 150 non-governmental groups, including the World Organization Against Torture. Amnesty International, an advocate for human rights, reports accounts of brutality and inadequate holding conditions. The case will undoubtedly discourage local journalism from speaking out against the Houthi rebel administration and further exacerbate the strain on freedoms in Yemen.
The verdict came from the specialised criminal court in Houthi-controlled Sanaa which has no legal or internationally recognised jurisdiction. Al Jazeera referenced lawyers and subject matter experts who stated that defence lawyers were excluded from the courtroom and that the trial did not meet fair trial standards. The journalists have been in prison since 2015, when Houthi authorities kidnapped them, along with six others. According to the court documents obtained by The National, the ten journalists were apprehended for “publishing false and malicious news, information, rumours and tendentious propaganda in support of the Arab Coalition.”
Reporters without Border’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks Yemen as one of the poorest countries in terms of media freedom, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists. “The intimidation of journalists in Yemen is a common phenomenon but actual death sentences are rare, until now at least,” Kendall, a fellow at Oxford University told Al Jazeera. This concerning development will set precedent, as with any court case. When journalists are fearful of retaliation from rebel authorities, the quality of journalism will decrease. The same can be said for any party which stands in the way of freedom of expression.
The Yemeni civil war is understood to be one of, if not the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The already grave situation took a turn for the worse in 2015, when Houthi forces took control of many territories including the country’s capital, Sanaa. The Saudi Arabia coalition followed with an attack on Houthi forces in support of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s internationally recognised Yemeni Government. Since then, multiple governments have been involved, furthering the devastation to civilians. The Global Conflict Tracker estimates that 100,000 lives have been lost due to the conflict while four million have been displaced. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that 80% of Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and 66% of people cannot afford food.
The sentencing of Akram al-Walidi, Abdelkhaleq Amran, Hareth Hamid, and Tawfiq al-Mansouri is an appalling ruling aiming to silence and intimidate journalists. Constraining press freedoms is detrimental to any society, and shows a complete disregard of the fundamental human right of freedom of expression. “It is outrageous these brave journalists remain at risk of death simply for telling the world the truth about the suffering in Yemen,” said Heba Moravef, a representative of Amnesty International.
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