behind the news

Yemen kicks out foreign correspondents

Can western media work with local journalists to fill the gap?
June 4, 2014

Journalist Adam Baron was deported from Yemen in early May, after being told that he was no longer welcome in the country. His departure was bemoaned and protested by commentators and journalists in the US and Yemen who appreciated and depended on his regular coverage for McClatchy, the Christian Science Monitor, and others. The only American with a journalism visa, Baron covered drone strikes and counterterrorism as well as Yemen’s complex internal political situation in the years since its Arab Spring uprising. Not long after he left, another foreign journalist, Iona Craig, who writes for the Times of London and elsewhere, decided to leave, “of my own accord,” she wrote.

“I decided not to run as I have too many times in the past,” she wrote in a blog post, “[not] stopping and challenging what the government has done means the persecution of journalists will continue unabated.”

Craig and Baron were among only a handful of foreign reporters working in Yemen, and apparently the only two there on official journalism visas. Another American freelancer was denied entry to Yemen the same week.

“For those of us outside, that means there’s less information out there, even though Yemen is essential for understanding US counterterrorism,” said Gregory Johnsen, the Michael Hastings national security fellow at BuzzFeed and author of the book The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia.

Yemen is a major front in the US war on Al Qaeda’s affiliate groups. The US has killed hundreds of alleged militants, and more than 100 civilians in drone strikes in the country. The Yemeni government is the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and military equipment. And yet, due to security restrictions and perhaps the limited appetite for stories on topics other than Al Qaeda, few international outlets have a permanent presence there, and the news coming out of Yemen is often spotty, as exemplified by contradictory reports of civilian deaths in drone strikes. Under the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, several foreign journalists had been deported, but Baron’s deportation is the first such action under the current government, headed by Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.

The outcry over Baron’s departure–even a Yemeni official in Washington tweeted his disapproval–brought up the uncomfortable division between foreign and local media in countries that only rarely make US headlines. There is a substantial group of Yemeni commentators and journalists on Twitter and elsewhere, writing in English as well as Arabic. In focusing on the journalists that fit the traditional picture of foreign correspondent, it could seem that the Western media is sidelining this font of information.

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Atiaf Alwazir, who blogs as Woman from Yemen, wrote in the days after Baron’s departure, “It is not the nationality that makes a journalist, but rather knowledge of the country, language skills, objectivity, and professionalism. Whether the person is a foreign or local journalist should not be the basis for judging whether someone is a credible source.”

Alwazir’s point is related to the plight of the “fixer,” which Andrew Bossone wrote about in CJR in April. Too often, the hard work of journalists in their own countries–their contacts, their language skills, their nuanced understanding–gets hidden under the byline of a Western journalist. The outlet also matters; in my own experience reporting on drone policy at ProPublica, it was a simple reality that a US official would be more likely to comment on a strike reported by Baron at McClatchy than something from a Yemeni paper.

Yemeni journalists could break into US media–as in this recent New York Times piece, by Shuaib Almosawa and Eric Schmitt, or spots from the AP or Reuters–but that seems to happen less frequently.

“Right now coverage of Yemen is very reduced,” said Oliver Holmes, a former freelancer in Yemen who now works for Reuters in Beirut. He was deported in 2011. “I don’t know why you can’t get more from local journalists. It might be inertia on the part of editors, or they want someone they know, who can come to coffee with them in New York or London. But one way to do it would be to speak to these journalists who have left these countries and say, ‘Who did you know when you left, and who could you recommend?'”

Working in Yemen is difficult for any journalist. There’s limited freedom of movement, particularly outside the capital city; Al Jazeera Arabic correspondents were recently barred from conflict zones in the south of the country. There’s also the fact that Yemeni journalists face threats greater than deportation, which can lead to caution in reporting, said Holmes and others.

“The local press in Yemen was under a lot of internal censorship,” said Haley Edwards, an American journalist who was deported along with Holmes. “Often, we could say things more explicitly.”

Jason Stern, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that there were seven journalists abducted in Yemen last year (including one foreigner), and that it’s common for journalists to be detained for questioning or hauled into defamation proceedings. “There are so many people vying for power in Yemen, trying to assert control, and journalists never quite know whose red line they are crossing,” said Stern. “That includes the government at times, but also non-state actors.”

Without denying the role of Yemeni journalists, Stern said, there is a place for coverage by outsiders. “There are [foreign] journalists who have proven that they are trustworthy, and they’ve gained respect with the local community, and they serve as an essential international link,” Stern added. “International journalists who work in Yemen are essential for broadening the image and understanding of Yemen abroad.”

Cora Currier is a freelance journalist focusing on national security. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at ProPublica and on the editorial staff of The New Yorker