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Yemen’s transition during the ‘Arab Spring’

Do you know where Yemen is?

According to the International Rescue Committee, just 15 percent of Americans are even aware of the crisis in Yemen. And even less know where to locate it on the map.

For years, Yemen (اليمن) has been one of the poorest Arab countries. Most recently its economy has declined due to reduced oil prices, a commodity on which most of its economy is based. But conflict has been occuring in Yemen since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1967, the formation of The People's Republic of Yemen, comprising the region of Aden and the former Protectorate of South Arabia, created separation between South Yemen and the Republic of Yemen. However with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the two Two Yemens united as Republic of Yemen with Mr Saleh as president, regardless of the tensions existing. Today Yemen's government is a republic with a bicameral legislative body composed of the House of Representatives and the Shura Council. Its executive branch features its chief of state and head of government. Yemen's chief of state is its president, while the head of government is its prime minister.

Today, its economy is on the verge of collapse, infectious disease is rampant, and competing factions pose an existential threat to the country. A civil war has left Yemen in what some are calling the world’s “largest humanitarian crisis to date,” according to the Heritage Foundation. In the late 2000's, in addition to terrorist actions, various radical groups have emerged in Yemen - such as al-Qaeda beginning to settle within Yemeni borders in 2009 - and have further increased the country's instability. In a year of major changes in the Arab world, Yemen witnessed its share of turmoil in 2011. In addition to the long-standing tension and fragmentation along regional and tribal lines, there was also unrest and mass protests against the 33-year rule of President Saleh, including an attack on his compound in June 2011.

In 2016 the UN estimated that more than 3/4 of the population of Yemen lacked access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and nearly half lacked access to sufficient food and medicine. In late 2016 and 2017 the country suffered a massive cholera outbreak; the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that the total number of cholera cases had reached one million, making the outbreak one of the largest in recent history. Finally, in late 2017 the Houthi-Salih alliance ended dramatically when Salih declared that he was ready to hold talks with the Saudi coalition about ending the war. Violence soon followed, with Houthis and pro-Salih troops battling for control of key sites in the capital. On December 4, Salih was killed by Houthi forces near his home in Sanaa.

To put this situation into further perspective, consider that Yemen has a population of 27 million people. Approximately 18.8 million—69 percent of the country’s population—is in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. Yemen’s political conflicts are largely rooted in the fact that a single individual, former President Salih, spent a large portion of the nation’s recent history in power. Unfortunately, the people of Yemen are not the only ones suffering in these harsh conditions. The situation of media and journalists has been worsening in parallel with the political and security developments. Many independent and dissident media outlets have experienced direct attacks, with several journalists killed and injured. According to the non-profit International Media Support, 588 violations against media workers were reported between February and December 2011 and 289 were physical. Altogether, the media in Yemen, especially in Sana’a, seem to be in a very serious, even existential crisis. The tense situation has also challenged the relative solidarity within the media sector, as competition for audiences has created an environment in which the ethics of good journalism are stretched and even challenged. However with an approximate literacy rate of 51 percent - most of which consists of only males - the lack of mass media is difficult to combat when so little of their citizens are able to understand the repercussions of privatized government-owned media.

Arguably, the branch most affected by the unrest is print media. Although there are problems facing the sector as a whole, print media has experienced enormous challenges to the printing and distributing of newspapers. In addition to the scarcity of printing paper and other essentials, newspapers have been confiscated and sometimes burnt when having to cross through the many checkpoints in Sana’a and elsewhere. These obstacles in reaching their readers have naturally also had a negative impact on advertisement revenue. As a result, many print media have sought to diversify their business by turning to online publishing, including radio. Meanwhile, since the government does not have the capability to block satellite TV, a couple of stations have emerged over recent years as an alternative to state TV. So far, FM radio has been reserved for state-controlled media. However, this may change if the transition leads to media reform and an end to state monopoly on broadcast media. For example, Yemen Times has already submitted an application for an FM licence and is hopeful that it will be granted in the not too distant future.

The Yemen Journalists Syndicate (YJS) is the only major association of media workers in Yemen, with headquarters in Sana’a and branches and committees in other parts of the country. The greatest movement of the YJS involves itself in is known as the ‘Arab Spring’, which re-ignited discussion about the political role of digital space and its democratic potential. However researcher Judith Bessant suggests gearing the conversation towards a ‘Digital Spring’ “as a metaphor to suggest the possibility that similar processes are taking place in schools and universities." Similarly, YJS representatives are moderately optimistic about the transition period or ‘Digital Spring’, which they believe will provide an opportunity to promote reform of media laws. This widespread use of information and communications technology (ICT) explored in Hamelink’s “Global Communication” can also be seen in the Middle East and North African countries. Blogging and social media have played an important role in the recent calls for reform and change. Using these new communication systems and devices, citizens have been able to express their anger and frustration with their autocratic governments and rulers. Most recently, the venting has turned into action, as shown by the eradication of the old regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and of course, Yemen.

Nonetheless, according to Freedom House, under existing laws Yemen news outlets and journalists must obtain licenses annually from the Ministry of Information, and printing houses must maintain a registry of printed materials and submit copies to the Ministry as well. “High capital requirements to establish print publications can exclude new competitors from entering the market. There is no systematic regulation of broadcast media in Yemen, creating legal ambiguities and rendering outlets vulnerable to arbitrary interference,” Freedom House reported. According to researchers Aman and Jayroe for the Digest of Middle East Studies (DOMES) , “Yemen has historically and consistently had one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the Arab world largely because of the lack of expertise in using technology products as well as the lack of funds to purchase them." Therefore, while pessimists argue that Yemen’s track record on reform is unlikely, optimists say Yemen is entering a critical new phase, supported by unprecedented levels of international engagement. For the reform agenda to succeed, Yemen's elite power brokers must set aside personal rivalries and collectively surrender their advantage to the benefit of state institutions.

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