Conflict Opinion

The media’s role in Yemen’s 500 days of war

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The war in Yemen is now 500 days old. That’s almost a year and a half of brutal war that is still raging. A war that has been immensely devastating and where now, according to the UN, the sheer scale of the humanitarian catastrophe and current numbers are not only astounding, but “they are also – simply stated – beyond the humanitarian community’s current capacity to respond”. A war that despite the violent deaths of thousands of civilians in what may amount to war crimes, the use of banned cluster munitions, and the worsening strife of millions of innocent civilians, remains almost invisible in the international media.

The UN estimates that 82% of the population is in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. That is 21.2 million people and almost double the number of those needing humanitarian aid in Syria. Within that 82%, 14.4 million people are unable to meet their food needs, 19.4 million lack clean water and sanitation, and 14.1 million are without adequate healthcare. There’s also at least 2.7 million internally displaced people (IDP) who often fled from one dangerous zone to one that is only less so due to the lack of and access to completely safe zones – there are recorded incidents where even IDP camps and refugees fleeing war were bombed as well.

A media conspiracy or business as usual?

Such horrific realities, solid statistics, and no less than 10 states openly involved in the war – yet Yemen is still underreported in the international media. One may, even if for a fleeting moment, entertain the possibility of an invisible and deliberate attempt at an information blackout. Especially so when realising that the heavyweight party in the conflict is a coalition of states with vast resources and who historically have strictly state-controlled media in their respective counties.

But as much as a wild theory of a sinister conspiracy is entertaining, total media control at a grand and global scale is neither possible, nor can the scant coverage of Yemen be attributed to such. The truth is, there are many reasons why Yemen is not prominently featured or making enough headlines. Those range from the level of interest of individual media outlets in the subject matter, to availability of credible information and enough comprehension of the ongoing conflict to report on it.

More importantly, since most of media have individually distinct slants, are subject-focused, region-centric, and profit-driven, reporting is to a degree influenced by value and return from investing in a story. To international media, the Yemen topic admittedly doesn’t register much on any scale.

Moreover, in a fast-paced society, the media understands that most people have a short attention span and hence each outlet will generally attune content to its own customer’s interests. In doing so, they will not highlight or delve into too much detail on a topic that is of little interest to their audience.

Yemen is a small and distant country, where poverty and turmoil are rampant, and a ripple impact of whatever has remotely transpired there has no bearing or repercussions at an audience’s home, hence it is unlikely to capture local attention anyway. Furthermore, the conflict in Yemen is complex and confusing, and covering it on general premise of educating audience on global events is still challenging and risky. It is challenging to report on it without access to the country or proper and credible sources on the ground, and risky because it could unintentionally misinform an audience with below-bar reporting and on issues that are of lesser interest to the audience to begin with.

There’s also a risk of stepping on the toes of parties who are involved in conflict or their global partners who may include local governments or businesses in the media’s headquarters. The Saudi-led coalition not only don’t like the slightest hint of negative reporting of its role in the conflict, but view it as a grave trespass on their own ‘private’ affairs. They will take personal offence and pursue to discredit, slander, and punish any who may have crossed a line by publicly criticising their actions in Yemen.

The worst part isn’t the scant reporting though; it’s the distorted reality projected by the media when they do bother to relay the news. If and when the media covers Yemen, the tendency to offer summaries to explain the war and using one-liners to describe the warring parties in their reports end up overly simplifying a complex conflict. One that has often been erroneously described as a war between an Iranian backed militia, which led a coup d’état and hijacked the state, and a Saudi-led coalition backing a popular national government to retake control of the state. A description that is not only wrong and far from the actual realities on the ground, but also subtly creates many false perceptions such as a heavy Iranian involvement and presence in Yemen. And despite minimal involvement, the mere mention of Iran then drags the discussion into a geopolitical and sectarian context, whereby bringing other prominent, regional players and states into the mix, with the spotlight gradually shifting to Hezbollah, Iraq, and Syria.

Eclipsed by Syria

The media’s extensive coverage of the tragedies and woes of Syria’s war has not only eclipsed Yemen, it has also led many whom have been desensitised by it to inadvertently belittle and dismiss that of Yemen’s war. The UN reported that 6,400 people have been killed and over 31,000 injured in Yemen, numbers that understandably seem low when compared to Syria’s war casualties. However, an off-handed comparison and contrasting of numbers in two column,s without understanding the source and limitations of the data is not only gravely erroneous, but is also cruelly dehumanising in treating the dead as mere digits.

As far as the integrity and range of the empirical data goes, the actual number of deaths in Yemen are “likely much higher” than the UN reported (6,400) given that those figures are only from records of functioning health facilities. There are few such facilities to begin with and deaths are often not reported to them. Additionally, the 6,400 figure excludes indirect causalities such as the UNICEF’s estimated 10,000 children under five-years-old who died from preventable diseases due to the collapse of the country’s health system during the past year of conflict.

Moreover, raw comparison of Syria’s final tally to that of Yemen’s in order to get a sense of the devastation and without taking into consideration parameters such as timeframe, context, and locale-unique elements, is both unrealistic and unfair. Syria’s war started in 2011 and is almost five times the period of that in Yemen which started in 2015. Beyond the variance of the time period of the war, the scale and complexity of the conflict, the number and nature of warring parties and the local dynamics that are unique to Syria are all contributing factors to the exponentially higher casualty rates when compared to Yemen.

There are many reasons why the Syrian conflict is dominating headlines and extensively covered by the media. The sheer scale of devastation, regional politics, threat of terror groups such as al-Qaeda and Isis are but a few of those. Moreover, though there are many shared roots and common traits between the various conflicts in the region, to inherently establish Syria’s as the control example and litmus test to gauge the rest, is overly simplistic and bordering on the imbecilic. Moreover, such an approach by the media not only overshadows other conflicts, but also leads the public to subconsciously downplay those others as lesser conflicts. No matter the size of the humanitarian catastrophe, they will still pale in comparison to Syria.

Just three weeks into the war in Yemen, having witnessed first-hand how the war was conducted, I warned that if it continued in the same manner it will soon lead to a Syrian scenario on steroids. Four months later, the UN announced that Yemen was already on the brink of famine. The head of the International Red Cross who visited Yemen at the time added that the five months of war in Yemen has already wrought destruction similar to that seen in Syria after five years.

But the potent statements made by officials at the highest of levels and the predicted sum of fears becoming a reality didn’t capture the media’s attention beyond fleeting reports that were often buried in the back pages. A picture of a drowned Syrian child washing ashore received far more media coverage in a week than Yemen did in a year. The global community’s reaction as well as that of individual states to Alyn Kurdi was immediate and immense. The thousands of children that died in Yemen were neither highlighted as much, nor garnered sympathetic reactions such as those that did when countries opened their doors for Syrian refugees.

I remember when a friend back then cynically remarked, “Perhaps the only way the West will pay attention to our strife is when bodies of our dead children wash up on their shores.”

It was a sentiment that was echoed by many in Yemen’s social media sphere at the time. Many whom, though sorry for Syria’s plight, were also angry that theirs was ignored. Many to whom a media conspiracy in the past was far-fetched, now wondered if the disproportionate coverage of Syria was circumstantial and unintentional, or rather an attempt to overwhelm the public with Syria’s woes just to divert attention away from the catastrophe that is Yemen.

The propaganda

There’s a staggering amount of misinformation, propaganda, and parachute journalism that makes it hard for the general public to decipher basic truths let alone form an overall opinion of the protracted and increasingly confusing conflict. The following are a few examples of false or skewed statements, propagated by the main parties of the conflict, in an attempt to influence and shape the public opinion.

  • The war in Yemen is going well and according to plan; the goals set at the campaign’s onset were achieved.

The war is not going well and has been facing mounting criticism from the international community and the UN, who have repeatedly highlighted the catastrophic impact of war and called for a political solution to end the conflict. There was no real plan or end game per se; more a set of actions decided at the time to be necessary and for myriad of reasons. The main goals of the Saudi-led coalition – that being destroying the military capacity of the Houthis and Saleh forces, pushing them out of cities including the capital Sana’a, and reinstating the Yemeni government currently in exile – have yet to be achieved despite declaring the military campaign successful and over in April 2015.

  • The war in Yemen is only hurting the Houthis.

According to President Hadi, Houthis are a small minority that only represents 10% of Sa’ada. Sa’ada is the Houthis’ home governorate and one of 21 in Yemen. The population in Sa’ada is roughly 800,000. However, the war is not just in Sa’ada, it is across Yemen and in other governorates too. The coalition’s airstrikes targeted roads, bridges, hospitals and critical infrastructure, while imposing a nationwide blockade. This campaign collectively punished and starved a poor nation that is heavily dependent on imports. This is a war that devastated the whole nation and now more than 80% of Yemen’s population need humanitarian aid. That is about 21.5 million people hurting, not just 80,000 Houthis.

  •  Iran is heavily involved in Yemen, providing extensive political, financial, and military support, and the Iranian army and intelligence officers are currently on the ground and fighting alongside Houthis.

The Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government have been monotonously stressing the disastrous impact of Iran’s involvement and meddling in Yemen and claiming to possess solid evidence of such. A claim that has been widely echoed by their affiliates and media whom have additionally and repeatedly announced the killing and arresting Iranians in several locations across Yemen over the course of war. Unfortunately, not once was any solid evidence provided to back-up those statements and claims ever shared publicly. In the case of announcements declaring successful uncovering of Iranians operating in Yemen, the public was promised the release of names and pictures as soon as an investigation was completed. But after a few weeks of waiting, nothing was forthcoming except a similar announcement of yet another group of Iranians who were killed or captured. And just like the first group, the release of names and pictures would be ‘pending investigation’. Even now, there are merely vague reports of instances of Iranian groups in Yemen, but still no specific details, names, pictures, or proof.

This is why in most of interviews I did over the past year with international media, I was always asked, often with apparent scepticism, the question of Iranian presence inside Yemen. To which I would always stress the fact that there’s still no proof and that the shadow of Iran in Yemen is far bigger than the actual footprint. To drive this point home I would add that myself and many others on the ground, bearing witness to the war first-hand since the onset, are currently fairly confident that ‘there are more UFOs in Yemen than there are Iranians’.

  • The Yemeni government is legally legitimate, is representative of Yemen’s political factions, enjoys popular local support and has many loyalists on the ground.

There is a whole debate surrounding the ‘borrowed legitimacy’ of the Yemeni government and President Hadi. The disagreement revolves around the stature, duration, and interpretation of several consecutive agreements that were signed prior to the war. Agreements where, although the newest superseded the oldest, didn’t technically negate the predecessor but rather built upon them. Generally speaking, and without getting into the legal details, the agreements were essentially a deal between the opposing parties to form a temporary partnership government where power would be shared by the various signatories. The validity of the agreement and the legitimacy of the interim government created from it, is hence derived from the consensus and buy-in of the signatories.

Unfortunately, that consensus no longer exists, neither does a partnership government where the various parties are represented, nor is the buy-in from the original signatories to the agreements still present. Moreover, and to make matters worse, where there were a handful of parties who had entered into the signed agreements before the war, there are now more parties and factions due to the conflict. They neither recognise agreements previously signed nor agree to a partnership with the other factions.

In terms of wider public representation, it only exists by virtue of the unintended diversity of the current government members. Although cabinet members are considered public figures and come from range of backgrounds, they do not necessarily represent political parties they’re affiliated with, the constituencies of their own home regions or even opinions of groups with whom they may share a similar ideology. Members of the government were not publicly nominated nor voted into office by local constituencies. They were chosen and appointed by the President, mostly on premise of previously being a public figure where they can loyally serve his goals. The current Prime Minister for instance, is from the GPC party, one of the main and arguably the biggest parties in Yemen. But to claim he represents the GPC would be ludicrous. He was one of a handful of GPC members who fled Yemen to join the government in exile where he declared his own renegade faction of GPC loyal to the President.

Naturally, the local GPC party’s leadership officially expelled him from the party, and was he branded a traitor by the majority of members.

The dismal performance of the current government, a series of catastrophic missteps, excluding the main parties that were supposed to jointly create cabinet, failing to include or represent the other factions, and the failure to govern or deliver the most basic of services in areas presumed to be under their own full control, have all ultimately exposed the government’s incompetence. The government’s rapidly evaporating influence and clout led to a steep drop of public confidence in it. The exceedingly diminished local support is one of the main reasons why the government that was chased out of the country, is finding it increasingly challenging to return and operate from within their own territories. It mostly remains in exile, despite claiming control of 80% of Yemen.

  • There are two side to the current conflict.

The portrayal of the current conflict as being between two main groups, with the Yemeni government on one side and the Houthis on the other, does not compute when one takes a quick skim through the vastly divergent statements of the groups in the alleged two camps. That is because the fact is, the war was never two sided and groups were neither united nor had a common vision. They were more of temporary marriages of convenience against common foes and where uneasy partnerships were heavily dependent on the existence of a mutual threat. The individual parties had their own independent agendas, and more often than not publicly shared a different view from that of their partners on a number of issues other than that of eliminating their common enemy.

Such volatile and ad hoc partnerships run a high risk of unravelling as quickly as they formed as soon as the common enemy which sustained them disappeared. This is exactly what repeatedly happened on several battle fronts and regions in Yemen. The unusual alliance between the Southern resistance, al-Qaeda, other extremist groups, government-backed and coalition forces to fight the Houthis and Saleh out of Aden, fell apart as soon as they pushed their common foe out of the city, and factions turned against each other for Aden’s control.

There are now more parties and factions than when the war started, which means more divergent views and versions of any given event or story. The challenge of sorting through this wide array is further complicated by the lack of access to tenable and timely information due to the general absence of independent media or sources on the ground. And there’s only so much that a handful of credible sources, be it local voices or the few foreign journalists that pay short visits to Yemen, can do to keep track of and decipher the continuously changing landscape, let alone coherently relay enough detail of on-ground realities to highlight the complexity of the situation to the rest of the world.

The noise – ‘If you can’t convince them, you might as well confuse them’

A generally sensible story will often only get so far when most mediums carrying it have their own interests in certain parts of a story and not the entirety of it, and where covering or highlighting Yemen is irregular at best. Moreover, a story surviving the distortion of being editorially watered down or politically corrected, can easily be lost in the midst of the tens of other stories telling a different version of same; versions that are likely sensational, louder, and have been aggressively pushed out by resourceful parties with vested interests ensuring widest public reach. With the amount of media outlets, though reach will mostly contribute to spread and not create a general consensus, the many versions will still confuse the public.

Let’s use the experience of tuning in and listening to a radio channel as an example – some may bear with a little static noise when tuning in to a channel to listen to a specific or random program, some may attempt to fine tune, but having failed to find it audible and clear enough to one’s own liking, most people would eventually switch-off due to too much static or too many voices jumbled by interference of several channels with different frequencies now crossing over.

The noise from competing versions of Yemeni facts and stories may briefly amuse and attract the public’s attention. Nevertheless, the continued clamour and contradictory information will inevitably dull the interest of all but the most keen in getting down to the bottom of the story. Parties with a stake in the conflict and whom understand the public’s short attention span, having failed to kill a story or convince people of their own version of it, may easily resort to alternatively bombarding the public with conflicting reports. In doing so, even if it is not a complete success in driving away the public’s interest in a story, the parties will have at least confused enough people and hindered a general consensus where a public backlash and other ramifications would’ve been probable.

Press freedom and freedom of expression

The Arab world, a turbulent region dominated by police states and monarchies, is not exactly renowned for democracy or protection of public freedoms. Hence, it is not surprising when Arab states are usually at the bottom end of the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index: out of 180 countries, Yemen is globally ranked at 170, and Saudi Arabia leading a coalition of mainly Gulf monarchies, is ranked at 165.

In Yemen, while the constitution and laws did provide for freedom of expression, the regime limited that right in practice by instilling invisible red lines that were enforced extra-judicially. The way it worked was to subtly make everyone understand not to cross certain lines or touch a set of taboo topics (even if legally or constitutionally allowed to), for if you did it would be at one’s own peril. Rendering the parameters set within official laws irrelevant and where taboos and indivisible lines continuously shifted, the extent of one’s freedom of expression was directly proportional to one’s own clout or the power of influential people backing or protecting that person.

Pre-2011, the regime and Yemen’s traditional powers had common interests and were to varying degrees, partners. A freedom of expression allowing the crossing of lines may spark a domino effect where it would be inevitably harmful to the many. Consequently, protecting against mutually assured destruction, the elite were more or less united in quelling whoever would rock the boat. Post-2012 however, with that partnership broken and the unwritten contract voided, the traditional leaders and members of regime were swinging punches at each other and so were their people who included opinion makers, journalists, and their affiliated media outlets.

A report by Human Rights Watch on state of press freedom pre and post regime change in 2012 found that:

“While Yemenis generally enjoy greater freedom of expression since Hadi replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh as president in February 2012 after three decades of rule, this newfound freedom has been tempered by a rising incidence of threats and violence against the media. In the past, Yemeni journalists faced harassment from government security forces, but they now face threats from other quarters too, including supporters of the former government, Houthi rebels, southern secessionists and religious conservatives.”

But describing the public cacophony of divergent views and opinions as a “newfound freedom” is a bit misleading. These were voices coming from the recent state and party controlled media and where most owed allegiances to one or more of the many local powers. In a turmoil that highly polarised and split the nation, even the few previously and relatively independent voices had varying degrees of slant favouring one side of the conflict or another.

This wasn’t a case of the shackles coming off and newfound freedoms emerging, it was one where opposing factions loosened chains on their own affiliates and just enough for them to attack their opponents in what was essentially a propaganda pit fight.

Invisible lines defined a virtual battlefield where the fighting of opposing factions with guns on the ground was mirrored in the media by legions of journalists, analysts, and commentators. This is why though many are now able to openly criticize more factions, they generally avoid criticising their own and to varying degrees, their allies. Naturally, as reflected in Human Rights Watch’s report, they gained more enemies and were now susceptible to more attacks from more than one faction.

In such a hostile environment, journalists, activists, and opinion leaders who affiliated with foes were detained and/or forcibly disappeared. Independent voices were marginalised and systematically silenced through nationalistic campaigns that used the preservation of security and social stability as justification to unify messaging and hash out dissidents, on the premise that in emergency state of war an internal united front was a priority over independent voices that may highlight incite or inadvertently split ranks.

Factions that allowed open criticism of foes, also quickly cracked down on their own loyalists who, whether for sake of objectivity or genuine attempt at constructive criticism, made the deadly mistake of crossing lines during turbulent times where a faction’s positive image is to be maintained at all costs.

The silver lining 

The traditional media adopting unilateral views of their own respective parties and biased reporting not only failed in manufacturing consent and shaping public opinion, it also destroyed the credibility of individual outlets. For the people of Yemen and others whom had a keen interest in following the latest developments, especially the current war and its drastic updates, no matter how blind or ignorant they may have initially been, eventually caught on to the often deliberately distorted reporting.

The public, that in the past had assumed media reports generally held a certain level of slant but that the facts that were reported remained somewhat solid, naively presuming the media does not outright lie, were soon sceptically reviewing and individually taking each point within any given report with a pinch of salt.

The more reports that the public scrutinised, dissecting every bit of a story and verifying for themselves, the less faith they had in traditional media and official statements. A few days into the war and at the height of reporting on Yemen, many were glued to major media outlets like Al Arabiya TV for latest updates but soon realised coverage was disturbingly skewed to the point where wild claims and fake footage was shamelessly used.

The false reporting went unchecked and continued on the premise that the ends justified the means. Pan Arab channels like Al Arabiya, being Saudi controlled, were repurposed and used as propaganda podiums. Journalistic integrity no longer mattered and where facts were supposed to be reported, content was carefully crafted and sensationalised with the sole goal of tilting public opinion in favour of the Saudi-led coalition.

This is not to say that the local media did not also use similar modus operandi: both pro-Houthi and pro-Saudi Yemeni outlets heavily employed propaganda too and the agenda-laced reporting could not be relied upon for facts either. Ironically many, including people inside Yemen witnessing the war first hand, turned to international media for news, reasoning that such outlets would have a higher bar of integrity in reporting. But because international media scantily covered Yemen, and since most lacked access and relied on secondhand information, quite a few times got facts wrong, missed key issues, and with reporting that was often watered down, these sources were again not the best of reference for information.

A week into the war, the general lack of factual reporting was so bad I Tweeted:

“The first casualty of Yemen war is truth. Amount of misinformation mixed with propaganda & topped off by parachute journalism is insane!”

The demand for alternative sources was both high and at times life-critical. Many took to the social media to cross-check facts and find people online who may be able to corroborate or provide more data on any given story or report.

Curiously enough, many of those who sought alternative sources online were actually residing in Yemen, but due to movement restrictions and other reasons where the war had pinned them down, they took to the virtual sphere for information and latest updates. By virtue of being on the ground and in publicly sharing and exchanging information on social media platforms such as Twitter, the people inadvertently became citizen investigative journalists, slowly building their own networks of reliable sources: a virtual web of contacts who they both fed on for credible and timely information as well as contributed to.

Where and when social media increasingly became the more reliable source for news as well as political views and analysis for Yemenis themselves, it was not long until the international media noticed the relative diversity of these new voices compared to the traditional and usual media figures.

The new Yemeni voices were on the ground, offered real and timely information from various parts of Yemen, and though not all free of bias, still provided a rich pool of local sources to draw facts and opinions from, which could lead to a better understanding and reporting of Yemen. Which is why many international NGOs and foreign press outlets have ever since utilised and incorporated the input of the non-traditional voices to offer an alternative version of Yemeni stories. Stories that were previously and up to recently, otherwise dominated by the mostly bipolar rhetoric of the main warring factions.

Yes, Yemenis are smarter today and no longer taking reporting at face value, but now they are also overly-suspicious of most Yemen-related media reports. Yes, there are new voices and sources of information, but the momentum and impact of these are not yet strong enough to affect a major change in public perspective.

Yes, there’s a relative freedom of expression on social media, but although the political factions have to varying degrees tolerated this, there were cases where they brutally cracked down on opinion makers. Yes, the monopoly of traditional media has been broken, but so too was the public’s trust in the many outlets which peddled misinformation.

No faction won the propaganda war. Neither did any side win the actual war, nor the hearts and minds of the people of Yemen.

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A Sana’a based political and information analyst with extensive experience as a public communication specialist and capacity building trainer. Fluent in both English and Arabic and with a BA in International Relations from the University of Calgary, Canada. 12 years of public affairs experience working with the private and public sector as well as non-governmental organizations. As a consultant to stakeholders in Yemen, advised local and international entities on public diplomacy, political and security issues, as well as networking and communicating with local parties. A critical thinker and a passionate human rights and political inclusion activist. Active role during the uprising that started in Yemen in 2011 and the transition that followed 2012-2015. Co founder of the new AlWatan Party in 2012. Publicly outspoken on political and security issues and often a commentator on Yemen related stories and a guest of news programs covering Yemen.

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