Sunday, August 6, 2017

Satirical Shows Lighten the Mood Amid Yemen's War

My latest on Aljazeera English.

Satirists use their platform not only to entertain the Yemeni public but also to subvert rival media narratives.

As the war grinds on, satire 'embodies the only fulfilling means of venting', says Yemeni TV host Mohammed al-Rabaa [Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Rabaa]

Satire has become an oasis for war-fatigued Yemenis - a temporary escape from the gruelling realities of life in a combat zone. "I think things have been so suffocating in Yemen that satire today embodies the only fulfilling means of venting," Yemeni TV host Mohammed al-Rabaa told Al Jazeera.

Rabaa is one of the most popular political satirists in Yemen, having made his breakthrough during Yemen's 2011 uprising with an amateur video (see below) satirising a local politician. He attributes the popularity of satire to "its ability to speak far more to the Yemeni audience than traditional news media".

Even though the uprising presented new opportunities for political satire in Yemen, the genre is not new in the country. In the 1950s, Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman launched the al-Fudhool satirical newspaper in the port city of Aden, providing a platform for satirical takes on current events. Issued every two weeks, the paper tackled everything from corruption to food insecurity, including a piece featuring a starving TV presenter who almost fainted while asking viewers to donate food.

In the 1950s, Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman launched the al-Fudhool satirical newspaper.

In the ensuing years, satirists continued to parody their political leaders via song and on radio shows. The 1980s saw the launch of the famous satirical radio show Basmah (A Smile) on Sanaa State Radio. Established by the late Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Mahbshi and journalist Ali al-Sayani, it airs each Ramadan and is re-run at other times throughout the year, satirising issues of corruption in the country.

Under former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Basmah satirised the lack of democratic elections in Yemen; today, it takes aim at the Saudi-led coalition and the government of Yemen's president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The station on which it airs was taken over by Houthi rebels in September 2014.

"Since its creation in 1982, Basmah broke the mould and was certainly one of a kind," Suad al-Wisy, a host at Sanaa State Radio, told Al Jazeera. "Today, it reflects the concerns and frustrations many feel in Sanaa, regardless of which authority carries the radio. However, I think the show doesn't enjoy the same listenership it used to have, as there is a rise of many other radio channels attracting our audience."

Yemen's satirical landscape is heavily infused with partisan and sectarian overtones. Satirists use their platform not only to entertain but also to subvert rival media narratives.

Bahashwan, who began as a social satirist, shifted his focus to political satire as the Houthis began their armed fight in Aden in early 2015.

Aden-born Karam Bahashwan, who began his career as a satirist via YouTube in 2013 in Aden, today hosts a weekly show called Wala Nakhs (Shut Up) that is broadcast into Yemen from Istanbul, Turkey, on the Belqees television channel, well known for its anti-Houthi/anti-Saleh reporting.

Bahashwan, who began as a social satirist, shifted his focus to political satire as the Houthis began their armed fight in Aden in early 2015. "In that violent and intense political situation, one can't help but shift to politics. I realised that the main source of all of Yemen's problems was political," Bahashwan told Al Jazeera, noting that he hopes his show can bring laughter to the public, while also raising their political awareness.

Satirising Hadi's government and the Saudi-led coalition is a primary focus for Abdel Hafez Moujab, who hosts a daily programme on al-Sahat TV channel, presenting a counter-narrative to pro-Hadi shows. His programme, Maa al-Akhbar (With the News) airs from Lebanon

Satire is 'a useful way to expose lies, especially in light of the Yemen war and the media misinformation', says Abdel Hafez Moujab [Photo courtesy of Abdel Hafez Moujab]

"After many years in journalism, I chose political satire eventually. I found it a useful way to expose lies, especially in light of the Yemen war and the media misinformation," Moujab told Al Jazeera. "I aspire to offer a more truthful depiction through my simplicity and cynicism in analysing the news. I think my political humour brings the viewer closer to current events, and it grabs their attention more than the traditional media."

With Yemen ranked one of the most dangerous places for media groups to operate, many such shows are being hosted outside the country. "Media groups can't work inside the country freely, while there are increasing attacks against the press," Ahmed al-Zurqa, an Istanbul-based Yemeni journalist, told Al Jazeera, noting that various media outlets within Yemen have come under the control of different armed groups. "It's an extremely hostile situation for media."

Meanwhile, anti-Houthi satirist Mohammed al-Athroui - regarded by many Yemenis as a pioneer in the country's political satire scene, having sung satirical songs on television since the 1990s, such as Toz (Whatever) and Ham Shaab (A Nation's Concern) - has continued his work throughout the war. His show Ghagha (Cacophony), which airs long-prepared episodes every Ramadan on the Islamist Party Islah's television channel, is broadcast from Saudi Arabia, as the channel's official offices were looted by the Houthis in 2015.

Ghagha includes sketches and songs that heavily mock Shia scholars (watch below), prompting fierce criticism from pro-Houthi media outlets. "I respect our religion and all sects, and I don't aim to insult anyone, but [rather] to uncover some of the Houthis' fictitious tales," Athroui told Al Jazeera. The dangers of his work are clear: A pro-Houthi judge in Sanaa recently issued a statement on Facebook advocating Athroui's death "for his deliberate and repeated insults" against prominent Shia religious figures. "I am not scared; in fact, I am certain now that my show is very influential," Athroui maintained.

Rabaa says he has also received death threats because of his work; in one instance, his home was hit by bullets. "Over the course of Yemen's war, Houthi supporters have tried to abduct my sister, attacked my brother and confiscated my house in Amran," he said.

After more than two years of war, Yemen is now in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis threatening millions of lives. Despite the appalling outlook, satirical shows have found a way to lighten the mood - taking aim at everything from political oppression, to the crisis of unpaid civil-servant salaries (watch below), to the Houthis' hijacking of military institutions. Rabaa says he remains determined to forge ahead.

"Yemenis are reminded of famine, disease and devastation all the time, but they have forgotten how to smile, and that's what we try to remind them of," Rabaa said. "We don't mock our misery, but we mock those who led us to the misery."

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What Next After Humanitarians’ Pleadings for Yemen?

July 28 - Saudi-led coalition strikes Sana’a city in retaliation of a missile fired by Houthi forces.
Courtesy: Ahmed, at Twitter.

This week, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen received a great deal of focus in several international media outlets, as the president of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, the director general of World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom and the executive director of World Food Program (WFP), David Beasley paid a short visit to different parts of Yemen; meeting officials (former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Yemen’s prime minister, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr) and doing field visits to hospitals and internally displaced people’s camps. Also, BBC team was able to reach Aden and report on the cholera epidemic.

Meetings with Yemen’s prime minister, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, in Aden, Yemen. 

Meetings with former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen.

As much as these efforts are needed and appreciated as they bring extensive media coverage along, I am concerned about what’s next? Would all this media focus create urgency for internal warring parties and the international community to resolve the conflict? Is this media coverage like a temporary pain killer and shortly Yemen once again, as both humanitarian and political crisis, gets swept under the rug?

Aden, Yemen - “If you remember nothing of #Yemen remember Hussein Mazen Hussein - malnourished and fighting for every breath.” Courtesy: BBC, Orla Guerin.

There have been many other previous pleadings by leading international humanitarians about Yemen over the course of the nearly three-years-long war, however, it has not even achieved securing the full delivery of promised donations from states in response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The pleadings have not even achieved securing safe, un-costly and smooth travel access for Yemenis to and from both Aden and Sana’a airports.

Aden Yemen - “The Awal family in the wreckage of their home - hit by two Saudi air strikes. Some of them still live in the ruins.” Courtesy: BBC, Orla Guerin.

Most of the international and UN humanitarians arrive in Yemen with very exclusive and special access because of their privileges, while thousands of Yemenis are trapped in neighbouring countries because they can’t afford the costly and risky trip to reach Sana’a or Aden. As Sana’a airport is very often closed or has restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, Yemenis are forced to take an exhausting trip with a couple of connecting flights or travelling with boats to reach Aden or Sayoun then take the bus to reach Sana’a or Aden or other cities. The possibility for Yemenis to get a visa to travel, if they can afford it, or, say, if they were invited to attend international events, is very slim. Embassies are closed inside the country and one has to take the complicated and exhausting trip to reach few neighbouring countries which allow Yemenis’ entry, then apply for the visa. The most savage blockade is imposed into Taiz by Saleh and Houthis’ forces for more than two years now. Even if everything fails, at least, the international humanitarians must focus on the necessity to life blockades and secure safe mobility for Yemeni civilians.

I was about to be hopeful of the potential impact the leading humanitarians could have into the trajectory of the conflict resolution until this happened. Just when the international humanitarians were departing from Yemen, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis close to Mecca. At the same day, at the night, the Saudi-led coalition struck Sana’a in retaliation. This reflects the gap between the humanitarian efforts tackling Yemen and the military escalation between the warring parties. How can we expect to achieve progress in the humanitarian level while the political aspect of the conflict is overlooked? I understand politics is not the job of humanitarians and that’s why it’s crucial to combine efforts on the humanitarian level along with the political/peace talk level.

After the humanitarians plead, politicians must take action and not merely deliver statements. Yemenis’ agony doesn’t only rightfully deserve an extensive media coverage, but also both humanitarian and political efforts.

This piece was published first on HuffPost on the 29th of July, 2017. 

Yemen Cholera: Where Politics Collapsed

Last night the BBC aired a heartbreaking video report done by British-Yemeni reporter, Nawal Al-maghafi showing a glimpse of the world’s worst cholera record in Yemen. The number of people with cholera in Yemen is now the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year, topping the annual record of the cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2011. Yemen Cholera has killed almost 2,000 people since late April this year and the number is on a constant rise. Most affected are children as cholera is infecting one child every minute.

While Cholera ravages many parts in Yemen, charity groups are exerting efforts and politicians watch away. Among many, both Oxfam and Save the Children organisations are doing a great job in appealing for public donations. Also, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – UN OCHA – held a high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen in Geneva, last April. Eventually, countries pledged $1.1bn. So far, UN OCHA says only $605m has been paid.

I notice how Yemen is more and more seen as only a humanitarian issue and it’s not even taken fully seriously. I notice too how there is an overlook to the political aspect of the humanitarian disaster. The last time a Yemen peace talk was briefly and unsuccessfully held was almost exactly one year ago. This political stagnation has exacerbated the already heavy human cost. Despite that images of skeletal faces and bodies of little babies, women and men grabs world’s attention and compels many to donate, those images didn’t compel politicians to start any sort of mobilisation for resuming peace talks between warring parties or any initiative from world’s leaders (the US, UK, Germany, etc) to create new negotiating tables between the warring parties.

Funny enough, UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was recently mocked by Yemenis for publishing a job vacancy announcement for “Associate Environmental Affairs Officer.” The joke was: while the UN diplomat has not achieved any concrete progress in his mission, he seems to prioritise his own “Environment”.

Ten days ago, the UN diplomat briefed the UN Security Council about the situation in Yemen. He successfully described the humanitarian situation, as if he was a passionate human rights activist. Yet, he keeps failing in offering any new innovative and outside the box solutions to the conflict in Yemen. Despite his constant meetings with many parties involved in the conflict, the UN envoy lacks the critical thinking in finding baby steps towards conflict resolution processes.

Looking at the Yemeni and Saudi-led coalition parties, they all seem to profit from Yemen cholera outbreak. Saudi-backed Yemeni government politicians are to a large extent outside the country with their families and seem not affected at all by the bloody humanitarian tragedy in the country - in fact, the government is facing allegations of corruption and they are likely profiting from donated aids. For the Saudis, Yemen cholera is one of the best inexpensive and effective killing methods. While the Saudis’ airstrikes used to cost them billions of dollars, Yemen cholera is doing the airstrikes job and for free. It’s absolutely not of the Saudis’ interest to stop Yemen cholera. For the Houthis and Saleh’s de facto authority, Yemen cholera is also problematic. The Houthis-Saleh alliance is reluctant to admit its failure in running their areas by not being able to pay the civil servants for almost about a year now - a matter which plunged the already impoverished people beyond destitution. They also take advantage of the cholera epidemic victims to instigate more hostility against the enemy as the Saudi-led imposed blockade on Sana’a airport worsened the cholera outbreak by blocking medical assistant deliveries.

Yemen is in a state of war but more worse is in a state of political collapse. Yemen cholera is one of the results of the devastation the country is going through. Aid organisations try their best in focusing on Yemen but it’s as you can see things are only getting worse. But as long as there is no political will from the international community to approach Yemen politically and not only from the humanitarian approach, Yemen will continue heading into the dark abyss. There must be a quick return to Yemen peace talks.

This article was published first on HuffPost on the 22nd of July, 2017. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I wish the world can know the matter of Yemeni journos is a matter that reflects the suffering Yemeni nation as a whole endures. And It's a justice matter!

I’m so grateful for all the love and congratulating words I’ve been receiving today. My mobile feels going to explode with the messages, notifications and calls. I’m in awe with all your love. Thank you! Thank you! And thank you to Sherif and everyone at the Committee to Protect Journalists! I’m humbled to get noticed by such an organisation that I respect so much, let alone to get awarded by you. CPJ is an organisation I grew up learning so much about press freedom from and I’m humbled to get this recognition for my humble and imperfect work.

The award goes not only for me but also for all Yemeni journalists/writers who face massive dangers just for the sake of speaking up, reporting and writing. My story and struggle in doing something I love to do: journalism, is a story of a whole nation and particularly a story of many Yemeni journalists. And I cherish each journalist’s struggle.

During my college years at Sana'a University in Sana’a, one time, my teacher asked me about what do I want to be after I graduate. I said: I want to become a writer. He replied: you'll die poor & unread - and nobody will know about you. How much was he wrong, right?

As a female, you are expected not to dream big and have not many ambitions. As a woman writer, you are expected to focus on writing only “soft topics” and avoid the hard topics. I didn't buy all of that. I thought the sky was the limit. And my gender should never matter.

I have been writing since I was 15 years old in my journals. I have been writing for newspapers since I was 20. Now, I look back and I see that I’ve been writing more than the half of my life. In late 2008, I started journalism professionally. I was overjoyed to be paid for something I adore to do. When Yemen’s 2011 uprising happened, I felt an urge to tell the world about the bravery of my people. I also thought there was a problem: not many native Yemeni journalists write in English about Yemen. I wanted to have a megaphone to the world. So I created a blog.

I had Zero expectation that anyone would read the blog. In fact, till today, there are moments when I think, how the heck all this happened with this blog! Even though I thought no one would read the blog, I had an urge to tell stories. Stories were bursting out of my chest. I needed to tell the world about my people's stories. So I kept on blogging.

What I know today is that no change has ever happened without free press & freedom of expression. It’s the fundamental tool that any community needs to make a change - to express it first freely. And I know that my Yemeni generation needed change and free press, and so did I. So far I've blogged more than 1,000 blog posts and freelanced for dozen places. I bleed stories. Yemeni stories. I know also, No Yemeni has ever written enough. No Yemeni has ever written enough. Let alone of Yemeni women writers.

The award I get today should draw world's attention to Yemeni journos/writers risking their lives in speaking up against multi-faces evil. Today, Yemeni journos if they are not in prison, tortured, attacked, prosecuted, snipered down, assaulted, they are self-censored, in exile or in a refuge. Yemeni journos/writers today are torn between staying in the country & report & face death, or escape & be quiet. I've put blood, sweat & tears writing this; to draw world's attention to the risks Yemeni journos face at war time:

I wish the world can know, the matter of Yemeni journos is a matter that reflects the suffering Yemeni nation as a whole endures. And It's a justice matter. Period.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Caught Between Saudi Coalition and Houthi Rebels, Yemeni Journalists Face Challenges on All Sides


Afef Abrougui from Global Voices published a lengthy report last week on the deteriorating bloody condition of Yemeni media and she interviewed me for the report last May for my take on the violations against Yemeni press following my analysis piece on the subject published by the Atlantic Council Centre published last May as well. The following is the Q&A interview I did with Afef :-

Afef Abrougui (AA): Reporters Without Borders describes the situation for journalists in Yemen as “disastrous”. Can you elaborate more on the types of violations journalists and media are facing in Yemen?

Me: The war has devastated almost every institution and sector in Yemen, including media group. However, in light of the war, journalists have been targeted deliberately and systematically because of their work. There is a massive violence against journalists by different armed groups; Houthis’ forces, Saleh’s forces and extremist groups like al Qaeda, ISIS and Salafis. The types of violations range between death threats, assassination attempts, unlawful killings, kidnappings, unlawful arrests, detentions without trials, forcibly disappearance, being used as civilian shields during armed fights, media offices being stormed in and forcefully shut down, new websites being blocked, among many other violations. The most shocking violation was the prosecution of a journalist and being sentenced to death.

AA: From the research that I have so far been doing online, it seems that Houthi rebels represent the main party responsible for these violations, what about the Saudi-led coalition? In addition to the airstrikes that killed journalists, have the coalition and those supporting Hadi been responsible for silencing journalists and media on the ground (at least in areas under their control)?

Me: Yes, both the Saudis and Hadi’s leadership share equally the reasons of why there is a blackout on Yemen war in media. As the war began in Yemen in early 2015, WikiLeaks released thousands of diplomatic cables from Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry, which included documents showing how Saudi Arabia is buying media silence, Arabic media in specific. Plus, reports have shown how the Saudis are hiring PR companies to polish its image in media and "whitewash” its record on human rights; especially on KSA’s war crimes in Yemen. On the other hand, Hadi’s government have blocked several independent foreign journalists from accessing the country; as their reporting challenges Hadi’s folks’ narrative of the situation in Yemen.

AA: How do you think these attacks/violations are impacting coverage of the war in Yemen, a war that is already under-reported? How does this affect independent media?

Me: Media coverage of Yemen war has become like a battle zone; those who have the money and power manage to use media as a weapon of war in promoting their side of the story only and shaping how Yemen war appears on mainstream media. Each side in the war portraits only its “truth” while it’s totally incomplete picture of the situation. As a result, you find a great deal of war propaganda. No middle ground for any other type of media; local independent press suffers a great deal and it has collapsed. The only remaining Yemeni independent media are the Yemeni freelance journalists or citizen journalists who turned into social media disseminating updates on the situation in Yemen.

AA: What can international organisations that work to promote press and media freedoms do to support Yemeni journalists who are on the ground?

Me: It’s very important to give these journalists the attention while they are alive not when they are killed or arrested; meaning it’s important to reach out to journalists inside Yemen and find ways to meet their needs. Very often, a local Yemeni journalist who is covering the war inside the country would his name grab international media’s headlines when he’s sentenced to death or killed or etc. The attention that these local journalists could get while they are alive could really give them a sort of protection from such violations. More importantly, as Yemen’s economy is collapsing, it’s crucial to financially support these local journalists working on the ground. This could happen through mutual cooperation or allocating assignments for these journalists. In simple words, it’s crucial to support Yemeni journalists or media groups morally and financially.

AA: When Houthi rebels first took control of the capital, they resorted to blocking a number of news websites and blogs, do they still engage in such tactics? Have you recently heard about websites or blogs getting blocked in the country?

Me: Yes, they still use such tactics. Several new websites are blocked in Yemen; such as this one - as Hodeidah is under the Houthis’ control and the website is critical to their behaviour in the city. Blogs are not very popular in Yemen but Facebook represents the equivalent of blogs. There are Facebook celebrities in Yemen who are very active in posting on FB and are critical to the Houthis. These celebrities’ FB accounts have been hacked and sometimes more than once. It seems that’s the Houthis’ tactic to censor.