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Yemen’s Houthi rebels target journalists

Yemen’s Houthi rebels target journalists

Alexandra N. Gutowski
21st December 2017 - FDD Policy Brief

Yemen’s Houthi militants killed four journalists last week after holding them hostage. The journalists were abducted on December 2, when the rebels attacked Yemen Today’s office with rocket-propelled grenades and detained the 41 staff members inside. The remaining hostages have been transferred to an unknown location. This is only part of a broader assault on press freedom; the Houthis have blocked social media in the areas they control, and they are searching phones in the streets for any signs of opposition content.

The Houthis’ consolidation of power in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa has taken a violent turn over the last fortnight. When former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh prepared to break his alliance with the Houthis, the rebels launched a wave of attacks on Saleh’s loyalists in the city. The resultant clashes killed over 234 and severely injured 383. The Houthis systematically detained or assassinated their rivals, including Saleh himself.

The Houthi militants have deliberately targeted Yemen’s press since the war began. After seizing the capital in late 2014, the Houthis’ “first goal was to silence the media,” according to Reporters Without Borders. Immediately upon entering the city, Houthi rebels launched a three-day bombardment of a television building that housed a number of stations, trapping hundreds of journalists and media staff inside.

This assault on the media intensified when the Saudi-led coalition entered the war to restore the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In May 2015, Houthi militants held an American journalist for about two weeks until Omani authorities negotiated his release. In June 2015, Houthi militants raided a Sanaa hotel, one of the few places where reporters could find reliable internet and electricity, and captured nine Yemeni journalists. The militants subsequently transferred the journalists to unknown locations and denied their families visits and information. These journalists remain illegally detained today.

The Houthis are not the only party that is guilty of restricting the press in this conflict. Saudi Arabia controls Yemen’s airspace and periodically prevents journalists from landing in Yemen’s airports. To preempt the Saudis from blocking humanitarian flights, the United Nations barred journalists from travelling on its planes into Yemen. Also, al-Qaeda kidnapped an American photojournalist in Yemen and killed him following a failed American rescue attempt. But no actor has systematically assaulted the free press like the Houthis.

The recent House resolution on Yemen mentions the Houthis’ destabilizing role and expresses concern for journalists’ lack of access, but its main effect has been to revive debate about the constitutionality of U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition. Regrettably, this distracts from both Houthi abuses and Iran’s role in escalating the conflict. Instead, the United States ought to seek new sources of leverage over the Houthis and their Iranian patrons. Congress should codify existing sanctions authorized by Executive Order 13611 and encourage Treasury to identify appropriate individuals for sanctions. The United States should also work through the UN Security Council to build international pressure on the Houthis. For example, it should push for enforcement of the unanimously adopted UNSC Resolution 2222, which protects journalists in conflicts zones, as well as UNSC Resolution 2216, which sanctions the Houthis for their destabilizing role in Yemen. Finally, the U.S. should pressure the UN to hold Iran accountable for arming the Houthis in violation of the UN’s Yemen resolutions, not to mention restrictions on Iranian weapons exports within the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), since foreign support sustains the insurgency and protects the Houthis from accountability for abuse of journalists.

Alexandra N. Gutowski is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on military affairs and manages FDD’s Military Edge website. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.


houthi, yemen