Mohammed Ahmad’s (a pseudonym) dream came true when he was posted as a reporter for a satellite TV channel in his area, inspiring the 38-year-old that he would be successful in his new albeit risky job.
“Then al-Qaeda took control of Al Mukalla,” said one of Ahmad’s friends who also preferred anonymity for safety reasons.
Ahmad grew increasingly worried when a number of his fellow journalists and some notable social and military figures were arrested by al-Qaeda.
“We began to work in secret for fear of threats or arrests,” the friend told Al-Yemeni. “This group did not want any information about them to be reported through TV channels. I did not expect that Ahmad would be arrested because he was always extremely cautious.”
However, Ahmed was abducted on October 12, 2015, while he was covering a demonstration of thousands of people in Al Mukalla, one of the largest the ever witnessed in the state capital.
Electricity, waste collection standstill
Al Mukalla, with its population of 600,000 inhabitants, has seen living conditions slide since al-Qaeda took control on October 2, 2015. Besides kidnappings and threats, the group has imposed restrictions on public freedoms, often via religious institutions, on the pretext of implementing Islamic Sharia.
The fall of Al Mukalla to al-Qaeda also led to work being suspended in several state institutions, disrupting vital public services, including electricity and waste disposal, meaning litter has piled up in the city’s streets. The lack of services and rising fear of armed confrontation has prompted dozens of families to flee to the countryside.
Al-Qaeda’s members set up a local council comprising religious scholars, Muslim clergymen, and tribal, social and political figures in the absence of the state. The council has managed to alleviate people’s suffering through supplying oil products and domestic gas cylinders, but only through the black market.
“The state authority has been lost and government’s institutions have disappeared,” said civil activist Ali Ashraf. “Activists now face difficulties in exercising their political rights, democracy and freedom of expression. People’s voices have been muzzled, as happens in all countries when armed groups take control.”
Call for moderation
“The deeds of some persons falsely claiming to be adherents of Islam and Sharia do not in fact belong to Islam,” said a Muslim cleric who also preferred anonymity. “Prophet Muhammad says ‘A true Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand people are safe.’ Any other deeds are injustice and tyranny. Religious institutions must refine religious discourse, restore the spirit of moderation, and raise people’s awareness on the seriousness of violence and extremism. There is nothing worse than being aggressive in the name of religion.”
On October 12, al-Qaeda kidnapped Yemen Today TV reporter Mohammed Mugari and Azaal TV reporter Ameer Baweidan. It then published a statement that it arrested the reporters on information that they had prejudiced national security. Following interrogation, they were accused of carrying out foreign agendas.
“A journalist’s mission is to search and investigate to show people the truth, and the enemies of truth do not want to have it revealed,” says Salim Ali Shahet, head of the Journalists Syndicate’s branch in Al Mukalla. “They work in the dark, commit irregularities and corruption and do not want to be brought to book. The syndicate defends its members in the face of the violations they are exposed to. We resort to the law under which we are all protected. We do not have any direct contacts with the group controlling the Hadhramaut coast because we do not recognize their authority. As far as we know, there are only two journalists arrested in Al Mukalla and some mediation efforts are made between us and the abductors. I think one of their motives is their fear of the journalists’ disclosure of truths they wish to hide. To the enemies of truth, transparency and honesty are an archenemy.”
Another journalist said that the profession had a mixed reputation in Yemen. “To some, journalists are affiliated with political parties and, as such, their work is limited to publishing news glorifying their respective parties, falsifying the truth and lying in favour of them in return for money. Others are of the view that the press is a free platform for news, which explains why it is considered the fourth estate. Journalists are reporters of events and valiant fighters for truth,” he said. “The main danger now is al-Qaeda. No one now knows how to transmit the truth to the public.”