The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Houthis have no right to talk about freedom of the press

A Houthi fighter stands guard during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sept. 20. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Alkhatab Alrawhani is a Yemeni journalist based in Washington.

In November 2016, my former boss at the Yemeni newspaper al-Masdar in the capital city of Sanaa reached out to me, asking if I could volunteer to do some editing for the paper. “We have no journalists left, and you’re one of the few who managed to escape,” he said. As someone who had dreamed of working as a reporter since my school days, and who has spent my life since then fighting for freedom of the press, I was deeply saddened by his words.

For this reason, I was shocked to read – in The Post – the words of a leader of the Houthi rebel group trying to exploit the death of my fellow journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It made me reflect on the journey that I and hundreds of other Yemeni journalists have taken over the past three years.

Yemeni journalists have paid a high price in fighting for freedom of the press in recent decades. They sacrificed their blood to gain their rights, especially during the revolution against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. After Saleh was forced to step down, the Yemeni media landscape blossomed: Dozens of news outlets opened almost overnight. Journalists enjoyed unprecedented freedom — some even began to joke that they didn’t know what to do with all this openness. This golden age continued until the Iranian-backed Houthis conducted a military coup in September 2014. The media immediately became Public Enemy No. 1. In the Houthi narrative, all journalists are spies for the West and enemies of Yemen. The group quickly shut down media outlets that did not fall in line. Hundreds of journalists were kidnapped and tortured, sometimes to death.

As of the end of 2017, 13 journalists were in Houthi custody, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. They have since arrested at least three more that we know of. Journalists Abdullah Qabil and Youssef al-Ayzari were kidnapped in May 2015. A few days later, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate blamed the Houthis for the deaths of the two reporters, whom the Houthis had been using as human shields to protect a military installation in the city of Dhamar from Saudi airstrikes. I myself received threats from the Houthis, and the newspaper I worked for was stormed and shut down. When they couldn’t get to me directly, they arrested my father and my brother and forced them to disavow me as a “spy.”

The story of Khashoggi’s brutal murder has rightly shocked Americans. Washington lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the Saudi government for its violations of human rights; I salute the exceptional spirit Washington’s lawmakers have shown in claiming no murderer or regime can get away with its crimes. But Khashoggi is just one of many victims of such policies. His tragic death should not be exploited in an appeal to the press, as Mohammed Ali al-Houthi has sought to do with his essay for The Post; instead, we should honor Khashoggi’s life by protecting the press. Justice for Khashoggi must also mean justice for those suffering in Yemen’s war, especially journalists.

The tragedy of Khashoggi, whom I was proud to call a friend, has brought long-awaited attention to the war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s involvement. As a Yemeni, I felt relieved that the world has finally awakened, but as the debates continued, I felt that our voices as Yemenis were not represented.

More than three years after the Saudi-led coalition intervened to back Yemen’s internationally recognized government against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, there is no end in sight to the war. Yemenis are beginning to lose hope for any sort of a return to normal life. The humanitarian and economic situation is nothing short of catastrophic, and social and political divisions are deepening.

It is time for the world to take action. Some in Washington have called on the current administration to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Though this is a vital first step, on its own it will not be enough to stop the war.

The international community should remember that the Saudis are not the only ones responsible. The role of the United Arab Emirates is just as influential and controversial as Saudi Arabia’s, if not more. Yemen’s government has repeatedly called out the UAE for sponsoring armed militias and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Though the UAE claims it has helped Yemenis “liberate” their cities from the Houthis, no journalist on the ground dares write critically of UAE actions.

The Houthis, meanwhile, continue to wage internal war, including a long and devastating siege of the city of Taiz, which hasn’t gotten as much media attention as other parts of Yemen crisis. The Houthis caused this war and bear primary responsibility for continuing it; any genuine effort to end the war will have to acknowledge this. Those who try to mediate an end to the conflict must take care; if they don’t, their efforts could end up benefiting the warlords.

As much as Yemenis need the war to stop, they also need to ensure it will never happen again. And as Jamal Khashoggi once wrote about his Saudi compatriots, we Yemenis deserve better, too.

Read more:

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