World Association of News Publishers

Indicators for an Independent Press in Yemen

Indicators for an Independent Press in Yemen

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In 2010, the Sana’a-based Yemen Polling Center (YPC) was recognised by Washington DC-based Gallup International, the world’s largest public research institute, as the leading public opinion research institution not only in Yemen but also throughout the entire Middle East and North Africa region.

At the end of 2010, the YPC launched a one-year study into Yemen’s independent newspaper industry – the first of its kind ever to be conducted in the country. Reliable data is extremely difficult to obtain when it comes to analysing the press in Yemen, with the few statistics available almost uniquely focusing on government publications. As a result, the YPC’s groundbreaking research programme is already highly anticipated as a means of providing reliable insight into a portion of the market that is largely unknown.

Under the auspices of the International Partnership for Yemen, in November 2010 WAN-IFRA led an international delegation of press freedom organisations to investigate the state of freedom of expression in the country. The mission identified a number of key areas of concern regarding the development of the independent media, including tight regulation and licensing requirements, lack of investment and access to training. It is hoped the YPC’s findings will provide data that can be used to identify the needs of the independent media and at the same time contribute to formulating an accurate assessment of how President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime exerts control over the media environment in Yemen.

YPC President, Hafez Al-Bukari, spoke to WAN-IFRA about the aims of the research project and underlined the need to support the independent press in Yemen as a matter of urgency.


WAN-IFRA: Tell us how the research has been structured.

Hafez Al-Bukari: “This is a research study designed to aid the development of the independent press and strengthen its position in the market, as well as to diagnose the situation in relation to audience and readership. It is a two-part study that will involve both qualitative research inside media outlets to assess problems related to organisational and internal communications structures, distribution, financial and managerial issues, followed by a questionnaire that will be developed according to the outcomes of these in-depth interviews.

“A public opinion survey will interview 1500 participants nationwide to gather attitudes on the media and to get a sense of the presence of these titles; why people read independent papers; why they don’t read them; who buys them; which topics are interesting; what do they expect from the media, all with the aim of evaluating independent media from the audience perspective.

“The project was officially started on September 15th 2010 and will run for one year. The field research and survey will be completed by January, with the findings released some time in March through a report and set of recommendations. We plan to discuss these findings with the media themselves, to give each media outlet a set of personalised recommendations. The report will then be circulated amongst international organisations interested in the Yemeni and Arabic media so that they can identify the gaps that their assistance could fill and how they could engage in assisting the independent Yemeni media. The final report should be ready by May 2011.”


WAN-IFRA: How did you identify the need for this research?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “There is no communication research that has been done amongst Yemeni media, no scientific data that can be read to make a judgment or assess performance. There is a fundamental need for this type of study. Independent media are in the frontline when it comes to press freedom and are the voice of the people here. They are often their only voices. Government media is just the voice of the government, partisan media just the voice of the parties, so independent media are the most consistent defenders of human rights and political rights for people who don’t have a voice in Yemeni society. We are focusing on independent media because they fully merit our support.

“Media in general, anywhere in the world, should be independent, and we hope that the report will be very useful for developing the press in Yemen and around the Middle East.”


WAN-IFRA: What would be your assessment of the current situation facing the independent media in Yemen?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “It faces multiple difficulties. The legal structure, for one; current laws give rights to individuals to establish newspapers, but they don’t treat newspapers as business activities. Laws always focus on freedom of expression, on what newspapers should write or publish; in other words, penalties and punishments. Lawmakers just think there is someone who writes words and then publishes them, the law doesn’t take into consideration that a newspaper is in fact an institution or that there are a lot of people working for it, with capital and money invested. There is a mentality that “the money just comes”. They don’t appreciate how much effort the independent media has to go through to get money, unlike government newspapers or the political party press who have budgets that run these institutions. When they close a newspaper, or take it out of circulation, they don’t take into consideration that there is a lot of financial damage done that has many repercussions.

“A lack of financial resources would be another major issue. Illiteracy is very high, Yemen is a poor country and infrastructure is very difficult; much of the population is divided into lots of small units, meaning distribution only reaches the cities or urban areas and is absent from most of the rest of the country. Governmental advertising figures for the independent press are very low, and the business sector hesitates to advertise with independent media because they think they will be targeted by the government and considered ‘disloyal’.

“In spite of this, the independent media is much preferred by the general public. It appears to have more readers and more credibility amongst its audience. The independent press is also more willing to tackle social issues and so society responds well to this. The public can identify with their content: prison conditions, human rights violations, police and courts, etc.

“Human rights issues are always raised by the independent media and are never published in the governmental newspapers. Party newspapers only publish issues concerning their members and are, as a result, very partisan. The Sa’ada issue, for example, was raised only by the independent press: neither the government nor political party media outlets tackled the issues professionally. However, certain independent publications did. Again, the Southern Movement only had the independent press as a window - the issue was banned, and Al-Ayaam was shut down.

“Many newspapers are considered legally independent but are actually part of political parties. The ruling party and many people in authority or in government have started establishing their own newspapers by hiring professional journalists who manage them as independent media entities. In preparation for the study, we established a set of standards when it comes to assessing the legitimacy of publications’ claims to independence. There are 10-12 media outlets that the YPC considers independent, or that are more independent compared to others. They have the minimum standards. Examples would be their performances over one or two years concerning the topics they tackle from the editorial side. Do they provide a window for each party? Do they cover sensitive issues? Balanced reporting is a major factor. We don’t look into financial sources.”


WAN-IFRA: Is the quality of the independent press in Yemen as good as it should be?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “There are tens of independent media outlets. From their legal status it is hard to determine and we can only judge from their performance. Some are mostly or almost professional. Some of the governmental media standards are lower, as non-professional journalists who don’t adhere to a code of ethics manage many of its publications. For the independent media, you can judge whether they have this minimum ethical standard by looking at their publications over a period of weeks.”


WAN-IFRA: How do independent newspapers fare alongside government and opposition titles when it comes to circulation figures?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “Independent titles are circulated weekly so figures are less than the daily governmental newspapers, especially considering that the government press also has subscribers. Some of them are higher than governmental and party newspapers. Only Al-Sawah (newspaper of the Yemen Islah Party) has higher figures. Independents do have a good presence in the market though and they are competing well – especially Al-Masdar, Al-Shoura and Al-Wasat, who all have a good market share. We will figure out more exactly following our research. This is one of the reasons why we raised the issue of the study, as there are no circulation figures or reliable statistics among Yemeni newspapers. We get some input from independent newspapers, but government titles, for example Al-Thawra, say they have a circulation of 35,000, which is very high (the highest for any newspaper). Independents say they get circulation between 7000 and 20,000. In the last 12 months, circulation has been going down due to increased poverty, price hikes and the general economic situation.”


WAN-IFRA: How has the independent market been hit by the global economic crisis?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “It has been hit very hard. Newsprint and printing costs have gone up, and the government has shortcut advertising to independent media (but not to government media). The business sector has also cut its advertising in independent media. Independent journalists have been made unemployed and many of them have moved to government titles as they are offered good salaries and are made to feel more stable.”


WAN-IFRA: Are there many independent titles that have access to independent printing presses? How is distribution for independent titles handled?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “Only Al-Ayyam and Al-Shoura have access to their own printing presses. The study will definitely look into access to printing presses for independent newspapers. However, the government centrally controls distribution. The high-quality printing houses, especially those printing in colour, are actually government controlled, such as Al-Thawra, 26 September, and the Saba news agency, that also has its own distribution networks.”


WAN-IFRA: Who owns and publishes independent media in Yemen?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “The business sector is no longer involved and doesn’t make investments in the independent press. Independent media are now only journalist-owned by those who establish and run their own titles. This is one of the difficulties, as they do not have management experience on the business side. One of the aims of the study is to measure how they manage their newspapers and what their needs may be when it comes to developing their titles – for example management assistance, training, structural change, etc.”


WAN-IFRA: Do you think these journalist-owners will be receptive to this approach?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “We’ve found from the in-depth interviews we have done so far that they do have the will to follow this type of training – if they can find training programmes that will actually benefit them, that is. They are often fed-up of the type of training that doesn’t deliver and only talks about the issues – instead they need training that responds to their needs. We have thought about this a lot but do not have the capacity to deliver these types of projects. Therefore the report will give recommendations to international organisations that could look to deliver real training and technical assistance programmes for independent newspapers and media outlets by bringing in management and experience from other countries. Identifying the individual needs of each publication is important, but general issues also need to be addressed, as there are a lot of similarities amongst the independent press. Quality, meaningful training would be very helpful and welcomed by all of them.”


WAN-IFRA: Once standards are raised and effective business models implemented, could this help encourage business to invest in what would be a more stable independent media sector?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “It could, but it could also encourage journalists themselves to look for investment from their own sources. They may be confident enough to invest more financial resources as they may consider there to be more hope that they will make a return. I’m more skeptical of business getting involved, unless there is a new political era (and until the economy picks-up, salaries increase, and more people have disposable income to buy newspapers with). But it will definitely help journalists themselves, as they can’t secure loans from the banks or commission visibility studies. It really is a question of building the independent industry from an initial seed.”


WAN-IFRA: How will the study address Internet publishing?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “We have built online publications into our study and they face a very similar story. There are some independent news websites that are well respected and have a good audience both inside and outside of Yemen. However, they find themselves in the same situation as the written press, despite their lower production costs. To date only three independent news sites have their own resources – their own reporters and staff to cover editorial: NewsYemen, Al-Masdar Online, and MarebPress.”


WAN-IFRA: Will the YPC be conducting election coverage monitoring?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “We are not directly involved but are thinking of launching a public research series before and after the elections to examine what the public thinks, what their issues and needs are, and what they expect from the candidates. We will also look into what they like or don’t like about particular candidates, whether they have the will to participate, to vote or not. Afterwards we’ll look at whether the election has fulfilled their expectations, what they want the new parliament to tackle.

“The YPC has a current project entitled Yemen Parliament Watch through which we monitor developments and the performance of parliament: one of it’s focuses is on press freedom and freedom of expression, through which we look at legislation directly linked to these issues that comes before parliament, as well as women’s political rights.”


WAN-IFRA: Do parliamentarians engage?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “Yes, absolutely. There are joint sessions planned between parliamentarians and journalists to examine amendments to the Press and Publications Law. We are also launching a nationwide survey after Eid to examine, amongst other things, whether Yemeni society is supportive of press freedom, and to what extent it supports press issues. This should be completed in February, at the latest March, and we already have some indicators available on the website from the first report, a baseline survey, that found society really does support the media. They don’t like it when journalists are sent to prison. Although they are not always satisfied with the content, they are very supportive of the media in general. They just want the media to be closer to their issues and to address their needs.”


WAN-IFRA: Are you optimistic for the future of the independent media in Yemen?

Hafez Al-Bukari: “This is very hard to answer. The future of the independent media is directly related to political developments. I’m not very optimistic about political developments, especially with the recent focus on Yemen that deals with the country purely in terms of it being unstable, viewed through the window of Al-Qaeda threats. This always affects the independent media, as the regime tries to use this kind of situation to attack and fight perceived enemies. Media is always sacrificed when it comes to this.

“I think the only hope comes from journalists themselves. They are very strong, and are fighting for their rights; they don’t give up easily, so we can bet on them for the future. We won’t see good quality independent media unless we see meaningful political reforms.”

Sana’a, 9 November 2010.

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The full report by the International Partnership for Yemen, entitled ‘Freedom of Expression in Yemen – A Critical State of Affairs’, can be downloaded here.


Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop


2011-02-23 18:05

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