Fast forwarding to 2005, I confess that I am glad I did. It was a steep learning curve, but I realized why my father loved what he was doing: It was because of the inner satisfaction one gets from giving people a voice, exposing injustice, and promoting human values. Those were things that a geek behind a keyboard could not have done.
While editing the paper, I faced no direct censorship. But there was constant self-censorship, due to the strict press laws. Many topics involving religion, the military, foreign relations, and government officials were taboo.
After six years at the helm of Yemen Times, it was time for another international challenge. I handed the paper back to my sister, Nadia (who had just completed her master’s degree), and plunged into a five-month Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship program in The Wall Street Journal’s Washington, DC, bureau. I interviewed high-profile political figures, participated in major conferences, observed voting sessions and debates in Congress, and even made it inside the White House press room. It was a thrilling experience.
When I finally got around to my graduate study, it was in journalism, not computer science—and I knew I would eventually head back to Yemen to share what I’d learned. While pursuing a master’s in global journalism at Orebro University in Sweden, I continued to write articles for the Yemen Times and occasionally the Dubai-based Gulf News. A year into the program, I was asked to do a media project for a course and realized I could perhaps start a news-related website.
Another door opens
I remember vividly the day in 2006 when I stood up and wrote the words “Yemen Portal” on the white board. Immediately, I sensed curiosity and interest from my classmates. I said I thought it was time for someone to build a multilingual search engine that could aggregate news and opinion on Yemen from dozens of news websites and present the information in a clear and readable manner. Little did I know that Yemen Portal would mark another turning point in my life.
Within six months, Yemen Portal featured tens of thousands of articles from dozens of sources and was among the top websites in Yemen. In late 2007, I returned home to do focus groups for my master’s thesis. Observing Web traffic patterns, I had noted that news from dissident sites was more popular than stories from government sources. Indeed, since the site’s presentation gives priority to the stories that are the most read and commented upon, Yemen Portal clearly showed widespread interest in articles that were extremely critical of the state and of President Saleh. I discussed this openly during the focus groups and then, while I was still in Yemen, something truly awful happened.
On January 19, 2008, Yemen Portal went dark. I tried various computers, but all returned the same “Server timeout” error message. I frantically called a friend in Sweden to check the site. He said it was opening fine at his end. I realized then that my website has been censored.
I called the Internet Service Provider (ISP), which is state-owned, but got nowhere. I later confirmed that government operatives had blocked the site inside Yemen, claiming it was a security risk since it contained inflammatory anti-Saleh content. Looking back to the traffic logs a few days before the website was censored, I found a spike in readership on January 13, which I could trace to several articles and video links on an anti-government protest in the southern city of Aden as well as articles about a subsequent attack that killed some protestors. It seemed that readers were turning to my website for news about the protest, so the regime decided to make it inaccessible inside Yemen.
Frustrated by this injustice, I rallied other website administrators, and together we launched a nationwide protest against censorship—it turned out Yemen Portal was not the only website being blocked by the authorities. The campaign was covered by the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda but had little result.