Why almost no one’s covering the war in Yemen

May 13, 2015

CAIRO — More than 1,200 people have died since Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a military operation in Yemen in March, but the country has become so hard to access that news organizations are finding it almost impossible to cover the conflict. At the same time, a lack of electricity and poorly developed internet infrastructure are hampering the citizen journalism and online activism that have offered a window into other recent conflicts.

Yemen’s political turmoil has gone underreported for years, but journalists say the current conflagration has made reporting on the country more difficult than at any other time in memory. There are vanishingly few foreign journalists in Yemen as a result of the violence on the ground, access restrictions, and wavering commitment on the part of international news organizations.

Yemeni journalists, meanwhile, face power outages for days at a time, the threat of food shortages, and the problem of finding sources in a polarized country where violence has hardened attitudes.

“Not only are journalists struggling to get into the country, but the whole country is actually under siege at the moment,” said Iona Craig, a freelance journalist who was based in Yemen for more than four years until December 2014. Like other foreign reporters, she has been unable to reenter Yemen since the Saudi-led assault began.

“We’re talking about 26 million people here. It’s really difficult to get a feel for the impact of something like that when there aren’t journalists on the ground,” she said. “Yemen has basically become an island.”

Some Yemenis are trying to overcome the information blackout by making their voices heard on social media. But unlike in Syria, a relatively developed country before the civil war, or in Egypt during the 2011 revolution, Yemen’s poor infrastructure complicated their attempts. About 20 percent of Yemenis have internet access, less than in either Egypt or Syria.

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The problem has become so acute that some Yemeni expatriates are using online media to address the dearth of on-the-ground reporting. The acclaimed Yemeni-Scottish filmmaker Sara Ishaq has been noted internationally for her role in highlighting the voices of Yemeni civilians. In an interview in Cairo, Ishaq said she was inspired in part by a phone call with her father in Sana’a in the early hours of March 26, the first night of Saudi airstrikes.

“I called my dad and he picked up and he said, ‘Who’s bombing us?’ And I said ‘Saudi Arabia.’ He didn’t have a clue what was going on.” The power was out, leaving her family without light and information.

Ishaq recounted the phone call on Twitter, and the anecdote went viral. On social media more broadly, Yemenis have shared updates and fragments of life amid the accelerating chaos, when and where electricity permitted.

Exchanging information is one thing, but Ishaq said the use of social media to raise the overall profile of the Yemen crisis hadn’t become as widespread among Yemenis as she might have hoped. “I think the reason it didn’t catch on is because of the lack of electricity and slow internet, and people just being completely exhausted by it,” she said.

Another problem is deepening polarization. In addition to hard information, Twitter and Facebook are also full vitriolic messages from Yemenis blaming one faction or another. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition began bombing soon after the Houthis, a Zaidi-Shiite minority group from northern Yemen who are allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, seized large portions of the country and forced the internationally recognized president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to flee the country.

“Society is splitting quite rapidly right now,” says Ishaq. “We’re trying to represent this third party that isn’t really being represented, and it’s mainly the civilians who are neither pro-Houthi/Saleh nor pro-Saudi.”

Ishaq lived with her family in Yemen during the country’s 2011 uprising, chronicling the intimacies of that time in her 2013 documentary The Mulberry House. Now, like thousands of other Yemenis, Ishaq is stranded outside the country. Relatives in Yemen send her updates multiple times a day about the violence around them, but she said it was difficult to be apart from her family in Sanaa when the city was under shelling.

Tweeting and posting information online are, in part, her way of addressing her enforced isolation from her family and the crisis on the ground. “That for us is really the only way that we can mentally function,” she says. “Otherwise it’s just completely helpless and hopeless.”

At the moment, journalists have no reliable way into Yemen. The Saudi-dominated coalition has bombed the airport in Sanaa, leaving some journalists seeking other routes into the country. Some have attempted to broker passage on ships bringing aid to the country.

An enterprising journalist might try the Omani border, but then it would take more than 600 miles of dangerous driving to get to the cities clustered in the west of the country. Smugglers seeking to circumvent the Saudi-led naval presence might offer another, riskier option.

“The Saudis, you can easily argue, have an interest in us not being there,” says Craig. “The Houthis haven’t been hugely welcoming and friendly to journalists in the last few months, either.”

A crew from BBC television managed to enter the southern city of Aden briefly in April, but left soon thereafter, apparently due to security concerns. Other news organizations are covering the conflict from neighboring Saudi Arabia, or from Djibouti, Cairo, or Beirut.

“It’s deeper than the problem of there not being foreign journalists on the ground. It’s even deeper than issues with the Yemeni press,” said Adam Baron, a journalist who was based in Yemen until 2014 and is now a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “It’s the simple fact that it’s literally almost impossible to get information in or out of that country because of the apocalyptic damage and strain to Yemen’s infrastructure.”

“The narrative has come to be dominated by voices outside of the country,” says Baron. “Yemenis are losing their agency in the discussion.”

Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo