Why the press struggles to cover the war in Yemen

September 2, 2019
Soldiers guard the site of a deadly attack inside the Sheikh Othman police station in Aden, Yemen, on August 1, 2019. AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty

In the wake of 9/11, when the US invaded Afghanistan, journalists flew into the country with American troops and filed stories on America’s war against terrorism. Later, in 2003, the press helped convince the American public that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that US intervention was necessary to liberate the Iraqi people. The subsequent internecine proxy conflict in Syria has been detailed in story after story. 

But a fourth war, in Yemen, equal in destruction and in its potential for fallout that directly affects Americans, has been covered very differently. Amnesty International has described it as the “forgotten war.” Coverage of the conflict, which has raged for five years and has precipitated one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, has been sporadic and simplistic. 

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It is, admittedly, a complex story—one that requires a nuanced understanding of the cultures and the political currents of a whole region. Civil wars have plagued the nation for years. In 2011, when the Arab Spring shook the Arabian Peninsula and parts of North Africa, Yemenis protested for democracy. They toppled the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country for 33 years. He was forced to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. 

Under Hadi, who ran uncontested in 2012, reforms were slow and corruption and food insecurity continued. The Houthi rebels, a resistance movement that follows the Shia sect of Islam—the one most prevalent in Iran—wanted greater political representation. In 2014, they aligned with Saleh and took control of the capital city of Sanaa. 

Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia in early 2015. A fight for power between tribal and government factions within Yemen escalated in March of that year, when Saudi Arabia and other Arab states intervened with air strikes to fight the growing influence of Iran on the Houthis. According to international agencies, the number of dead—from air strikes and famine-like conditions in the country—could be as many as 80,000.

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Local journalists are routinely targeted with smear campaigns, run by both the Saudi coalition and the Houthis, on social media, says Radhya Almutawakel, a human rights advocate and the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni human-rights group. “They try to spread the idea that we are spies of the US,” she says, “and isolate us from our community because they know that the worst thing that could happen to us is to be labeled biased.” 

For Shuaib M. Almosawa, a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, maintaining a low profile has kept him safe and allowed him to preserve his credibility. In the past five years, he has refused several interviews and TV appearances. Almosawa mostly writes for Western media such as the Times, The Intercept, and Foreign Policy. “Most people in Yemen don’t read international papers or online news—so people don’t recognize me.” 

But Almosawa credits his longevity as a reporter in part to the fact that he has avoided attacks by Houthis. “Mainly I tend to report on the coalition and the humanitarian crisis because of editors’ constant interest in the issue, and that keeps me out of trouble.” 

Foreign reporters face other issues. When Iona Craig, an independent journalist, began covering the Yemen uprising in 2011, she recalls, access was a rare commodity. It remains unpredictable and arbitrary. 

Foreign journalists remain caught between the Houthi-controlled north and the Saudi-coalition forces in the south and need to get permission from both parties if they want to enter the country. “It is effectively two countries as far as getting visas,” Craig says. 

The first significant reporting on Yemen in the US press appeared in October 2016, when a bomb struck a funeral gathering in Sanaa and killed more than 100 people. The horror of the incident, and reports a few weeks later revealing that the bomb had been made in the US, meant that the story broke through. 

Other coverage focused on the human impact of the war. The New York Times‘s story of an emaciated seven-year-old, Amal Hussain, sparked an outcry from all over the world. Craig points out that Amal’s photo and her death due to starvation symbolized Yemen’s suffering and received rare front-page coverage. The coalition also announced a loosening of restrictions to access in the summer of 2018.

But most journalists peg the recent spike in coverage of Yemen to the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing ignited a public debate and scrutiny of Saudi actions within the US. It also led, in the US Congress, to the passage of the War Powers Resolution Act, which called for an end to US military involvement in the Yemen war. (The measure was vetoed by President Trump in April.) “Khashoggi’s murder was repulsive and sickening,” Almosawa says. “They [Americans] couldn’t continue ignoring Saudi’s involvement in Yemen after this incident.”

Saudi Arabia desperately needed to change its image. It handed out Yemeni visas to journalists in Washington like “lollipops,” Craig says. According to Mohamad Bazzi, a professor of journalism at New York University, the Trump administration attracted far more scrutiny for its foreign policy than had President Obama—as reflected in the coverage of arms deals Trump was signing and the ways they came to bear on the conflict.

This July, PBS published a piece detailing $8 billion worth of arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Intercept also published a detailed report on the widespread use of American weapons in Yemen, concluding that “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are overwhelmingly dependent on Western-produced weapon systems to wage their devastating war in Yemen.”

Earlier this month, the UAE announced that it will be pulling some of its troops from Yemen, which experts say marks a growing rift between the Saudi and Emirati governments. A few weeks ago, clashes between Saudi forces and UAE-backed southern separatists began, killing at least 40 people and injuring more than 200. 

For all the chaos in this years-long war, says Maggie Michael, an Associated Press reporter, Houthis still push stories to journalists about the humanitarian cost of the conflict. Saudi-coalition forces push information on child soldiers said to be used by the Houthis—and push back at allegations surrounding torture prisons

Michael, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for her coverage of the war, says that ultimately, the conflict reflects the essential dilemma faced by every journalist: “You are given different versions of the truth, and your job is to dig deep to reveal what it really is.” 

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Zainab Sultan is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.