Yemen’s Block on Journalists Hinders International Response to Crisis

Since April, war-torn Yemen has experienced more than 360,000 cases of cholera, leading to over 2,000 deaths, according to Al Jazeera.

However, many major news outlets are unable to report on the humanitarian crisis, as the Yemeni government under President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and its Saudi Arabian backers are blocking journalists from entering the country.

In recent months, journalists from CNN and other leading news outlets have been struggling to gain access to the parts of the country hit hardest by the cholera outbreak and a widespread famine. Last month, BBC journalists were blocked from travelling on a United Nations aid flight to the Houthi-rebel controlled capital Sana’a, according to Reuters.

UN spokesperson Farhan Haq responded to the recent government blocking of journalists, stating that the limited press access to Yemen leads to minimal knowledge of the crisis, thus restricting possible international response.

“The lack of coverage is hindering humanitarian workers efforts to draw the attention of the international community and donors to the man-made catastrophe that the country is experiencing,” Haq said in Reuters.

The cholera outbreak comes amidst a worsening famine caused by the country’s ongoing civil war.

According to BBC, some 17 million Yemenis are considered food insecure, and 6.8 million severely food insecure. Approximately 3.3 million children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are deemed acutely malnourished.

A lack of access to food and proper nutrition are some of the most prominent effects of the now two-year-long civil war between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iran-allied Houthi rebels.    

The conflict erupted during President Hadi’s transition to power after an uprising forced longtime authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2011. According to BBC, President Hadi struggled to address various problems, including attacks by al-Qaeda, a separatist movement in the south, and continuing loyalty among officers to former president Saleh. The Houthis, a Shia Muslim minority group, took advantage of this instability and gained control over Sana’a in 2015.  

A report published by the UN in March revealed that at least 4,773 citizens had been killed as a result of the conflict and 8,272 injured, with children making up a third of all civilian deaths.

According to the Guardian, Yemen was dependent on imports of food, medicine, and fuel prior to the war. Both the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels are now preventing food and aid from entering the country and reaching Yemeni citizens.

The growing conflict has also led to a tightened gripcontrol on the media in a country with already limited press freedom.

Freedom House labels Yemen’s press as “not free,” and states that while their constitution does allow for freedom of expression “within the limits of the law,” those laws are restrictive. For example, the Press and Publications Law of 1990 requires journalists to maintain “national unity” and prohibits criticism of the head of state and defamation of “the image of Yemeni, Arab, or Islamic heritage.”

While Yemen does provide some protections for journalists under the law, the breakdown of the government since the outbreak of war in 2015 and the occupation of various parts of the country by Houthi forces has limited the government’s ability to enforce these protections.

Both sides of the conflict have placed significant limitations on journalists within Yemen and have contributed to the blocking of foreign journalists.

The 2016 report by Freedom House revealed that dozens of raids on media outlets were conducted by Houthi forces and at least seven journalists were killed, with most deaths resulting from airstrikes by the Saudi-led military coalition that supports the Hadi government.

In an effort to report on and bring attention to the growing humanitarian crisis within Yemen, journalists from abroad have attempted to enter the country by traveling on the few aid flights allowed into Yemen. However, according to CNN, the UN is worried about the possibility of a complete shutdown on flights to Yemen if journalists are continuously allowed to board aid flights.

A continuous ban on journalists entering the country would be detrimental to Yemen’s citizens. Unless journalists are provided more access in the future, aid organizations would be tasked with bringing international attention to this widely unknown humanitarian crisis.

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