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.

Still, I knew there was another way: Over the next few weeks, I developed software that would allow users to access Yemen Portal—and all the other blocked sites—via a Web-based proxy. My actions did not go unnoticed; my car in Sana’a was vandalized, but by that time I had already returned to Sweden. I realized that the regime was willing to take violent action against me, but I refused to surrender to government blackmail.

Calling upon connections I had made while editing Yemen Times, I was able to draw attention to the regime’s repressive practices, with help from a number of organizations such as the World Association of Newspapers, Reporters Sans Frontiers, Article 19, and the Committee to Protect Bloggers.

A way around censorship

Walid Al-Saqaf is completing his PhD at Sweden's Orebro University, which awarded him the 2010 Democracy Award. He was the first Yemeni ever to receive the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship and is currently a Senior TED fellow