Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Only free media will stand up for women as citizens" - Independent media in Yemen struggles due to lack of funds

The uprisings in the Middle East are frequently attributed to increased freedom of expression through new forms of media and communication. However, Yemen’s revolution is threatening independent news sources while simultaneously allowing them more liberty to report on controversial issues. On this World Press Freedom Day, May 3, SAVE spoke with two leading female journalists in Yemen about the contradicting forces of revolution and the essential role of free media for women’s empowerment.

When Nadia al-Sakkaf took over the helm of the Yemen Times, she had to let go of half of her staff. Nadia found that many male reporters were unwilling to work under a female boss and did not respect her authority. The newspaper was founded by her father in 1991, but since she took over six years ago, the newspaper has gone from strength to strength, winning several awards. Yemen’s uprisings, however, have been a mixed blessing for the newspaper, and are currently endangering its existence due to a lack of advertising revenue.

On one hand, journalists are now able to report on many issues they could not before. “The revolutions are driven by people's demands and needs for freedom and a better life,” says Nadia. “The first way that was used to do this was through media.” She speculates that the government may be “too busy or too broke” to bother about restraining the media.

Journalists hurt in the protests were not usually targeted, claims Nadia, but were caught up in the general violence. Foreign reporters are, however, under threat, as the government continues to deport even those who have valid residence papers.

Instead, a major threat to several newspapers is a lack of funds. Soon after the beginning of the revolution, Nadia’s paper lost 70% of its advertisements due to instability in the country. Not long afterwards, the paper’s critical reporting left it excluded from state advertisement campaigns. Reluctantly, Nadia has had to reduce the number of pages to half, and fire several freelancers and part-time employees.

The threat to Yemen’s only independent English-language newspaper could leave the country without a reliable bridge to the outside world. The newspaper’s mission statement is to “make Yemen a good world citizen”. “There are so many stereotypes on Yemen and it is our responsibility to provide readers with an objective, credible source of information,” says Nadia. “We provide readers with an independent, alternative point of view on Yemeni issues.”

However, even government-run outlets are coming under pressure due to reduced advertising revenue. Afrah Nasser, who writes for the government-affiliated Yemen Observer, says that the newspaper has been struggling since the second month of the revolution. “Companies don't want to put ads anymore,” says Afrah. “They believe people won't be interested to see ads.”

Yemen’s English-language newspapers are of increased importance due to the relatively low attention Yemen’s uprisings has received in the international media. “The international media's coverage of the Egyptian revolution was beyond remarkable,” says Afrah. “For Yemen, however, it was very very little.”

Nadia agrees that international coverage has been poor and is plagued with stereotypes about the country. “The international media usually have the same story about the protests,” she says. “They don't take the time to report on the real issues of Yemen, perhaps because they think their readers are not interested in the details. This is why we, as the local English newspaper, have to cover this gap and report on issues that really matter from a Yemeni perspective, but in English and in a style that is understood by the world.”

Free media is also an essential component of ensuring the evolution of and respect for women’s rights in Yemen. “Free media means that women are better in control of their fate,” says Afrah. “Once a woman is censored just because of her gender, she is sinking into becoming a second-class citizen. Free media for women gives them the space to speak out comfortably and freely and determine in which class they are ranked.”

“In societies like Yemen, women are the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups,” adds Nadia. “Only free media will stand up for them as equal citizens and promote their rights.” Nadia and Afrah have been working to include women’s perspectives in the media since before the revolution. Nadia has even managed to change mentalities on what is considered newsworthy by her readership.

“Sometimes we would put a story on women or children on the front page and leave the more politicized stories about the president or political debates inside,” says Nadia. “At first my decisions were criticized, but when we got positive feedback from readers it proved that pack reporting is not always best.”

Yemen’s uprisings have seen women play a part that has surprised and fascinated the world. But women’s voices are still left out of visions for a future Yemen.

“Many women demand to be partners in the governing of the new Yemen and this is not reflected or advocated enough in the media, whether locally or internationally. We need to make sure that women are a part of the future, not just the making of it.”

If you would like to know more about how to support independent media in Yemen, please contact us at office@women-without-borders.org.

Report by Helen Victoria Thompson.

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