Asharq Al Awsat – Jamal Amer, the Yemeni Journalist and editor-in-chief of the Yemeni weekly newspaper Al Wasat was honored recently when he received the International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect the Journalists. Other winners included the late Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat, the Al Arabiya correspondent who was killed in Iraq as well as two other journalists from Columbia and Gambia.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) stated that all four journalists have risked their lives for the sake of journalism and have demonstrated extraordinary courage through their work. Atwar Bahjat lost her life whilst she was reporting on an explosion near Samarra in Iraq last February, whilst Jamal Amer in the same year was taken hostage from outside his home and beaten and threatened with murder.
The award ceremony took place at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and was hosted by CNN’s Chief international correspondent and member of the CPJ, Christiane Amanpour.
The Yemeni journalist was born in the late sixties in the province of Ebb, south of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. He graduated from Sanaa University in Arts and Literature and has occupied posts including editorial-manager of Al Wahdawi and Al Ousbou newspapers. Amer has been subjected to a number of threats and following his arrest in 1999, he was banned from practicing journalism in 2000.
In August 2005, Jamal Amer was taken hostage by four men. It is widely believed that Amer’s strong criticism against what he called the exploitation of state scholarships by some members of government to send their children abroad to study was the cause of much resentment directed towards Amer. Jamal Amer, however was congratulated by some high-profile political and media officials in Yemen.
Asharq Al Awsat spoke to the award-winning Yemeni journalist. The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) Do you fear your duties as a reporter? What effect did the kidnapping have on your work?
A) Fear has become a reality and something that is normal now. Therefore, it is no longer an obstacle whilst reporting, even if the price is the reporter’s safety. As for the effect of the kidnapping on my work, honestly, it broke the fear barrier and removed any apprehensions. Despite the actions and barbarity of the kidnappers, I felt I was the stronger one. Though my hands were tied and I was blindfolded so that I could not see their faces; they became weaker and I became stronger. As a result the newspaper became stronger, bolder and doubled in distribution.
Q) Tell us about the kidnapping.
A) In August 2005, I was returning home from the newspaper offices and I found armed people in a military vehicle waiting for me. They asked me to go with them and then they threw me into the car. They blindfolded me and tied my hands together before they put me into another car that had been waiting. They drove me to a place that was unfamiliar with in one of the mountains outside the capital. They threatened to throw me off the top of the mountain and fired shots next to me to scare me. They said that they would decapitate me and put my head in one place and my body in another. They warned me of being insolent towards authorities and asked about the newspaper’s sources of information and funding and the writers. They accused me of belonging to a group of agents working for the Americans. They warned that the newspaper can criticize the government but not leading figures. One of them threatened to cut off my tongue. They threatened to torture me if I spoke about the kidnapping.
Q) There are other Yemeni reporters who have been subjected to similar kidnappings and harassments. Why do you think that you were given the award?
A) The choice was made by the CPJ so only it could answer this question, but I think that a determining factor for its choice was to focus on the independent press, of which I am part, and I have no affiliations with partisan papers, government or opposition. The second point is the period that the selection committee focused on, which is 2005. In any case, I consider this honor an honor for the entire Yemeni press and all the colleagues that have endured harassment and assault.
Such an award given by an independent respectable body such as the CPJ, I think is an acknowledgement of the existence of professional independent press in Yemen, of which Al Wasat newspaper is a part, therefore, this award is for the whole of the Arab press and for reporters who continue to work in an atmosphere of endless danger and alarm.
Q) Do you think that winning the award was recognition of your role in the Yemeni press in general or for the role that your publication Al Wasat has played?
A) My role as a reporter even before I owned a newspaper or became editor-in-chief cannot be detached from Al Wasat newspaper which I head, considering that the causes I believe in have not changed. What has changed is the wider scope that the paper has provided with it being independent and away from policies of checks and balances observed by partisan and official newspapers. It is for that reason that the problem of serious, independent newspapers that take on the responsibility of confronting official and opposition corruption, is a complicated problem as that kind of press becomes targeted by both sides, and is almost defenseless when harassed.
Q) What effect will the award have on the course of your work and on the role of your newspaper?
A) Winning the award has prompted me to further observe professionalism and portray, along with my colleagues in the newspaper, the value of independence that means adhering to professionalism and making the truth triumphant, without partiality or prejudice. This is what we have always sought to achieve with some imperfections of which no task is void, let alone journalism that relies, first and foremost, on a piece of information that stands to be the truth or otherwise.
Q) Why do you describe Al Wasat as an independent paper, and what are its sources of funds?
Q) Anybody who reads Al Wasat newspaper can see the extent of its impartiality, as it entails all kinds of ideas without favoring one party over another. In fact, members of both the opposition and the government publish in our paper what they cannot publish in their own partisan publications. With reference to news and reports, we try as much as possible, according to what is available, to gather information from all parties concerned and publish the story in a professional and impartial manner; perhaps for these reasons the reader trusts the newspaper.
As for our finances, the conflicting information published in official and ruling party newspapers and their adherents has even caused me confusion, as we have been accused of receiving funds from America, Kuwait, Qatar and from internal and external parties. However it is much simpler than this, if only they knew how little our budget is, how much we spend, and the level of sales in addition to the limited number of advertisements that we publish, yet we have been able to survive at least until now.
Q) How do you define independence of the press?
A) Safe environment and actual guarantees, which allows independent press that is not supported or subsidized by parties or the government to express the issues and social problems freely, and to uncover the areas of corruption and expose those who are corrupt without reporters being pursued or harmed. One can say that there is independent press in Yemen, yet its effect is subject to its ability to influence change. Independent journalism remains limited to published press. There are serious requests to allow the establishing of [independent] satellite channels and radio stations, and I think that this will require a political decision to be made and this is an issue that would entail a significant struggle.
Q) There is strong criticism against the government and officials in Yemeni newspapers. Is this attributed to an improvement in the level of press freedom in Yemen?
A) Yes. Yemen has witnessed noticeable progress, particularly in 2006, in the extent of freedom of the press, also the spectrum of issues examined has widened.
Q) Has the issue of safety for reporters also improved?
A) Yes. The extent of harassment has decreased in comparison to before. The situation this year has improved since last year.
Q) What is your definition of a brave journalist?
A) A brave journalist is one who can control his/herself whilst investigating an issue for which he/she holds favorable or unfavorable feelings. He/she should be free of personal prejudice. By the same token but in a different context, a brave journalist is one driven by the desire to reach the truth and to convey the truth to the people, to uphold truth and ward off tyranny, which is what Atwar Bahjat and many others have died for.
Q) How do you view the way that the Arab press handles Yemeni affairs?
A) The Arab press in general neglects Yemeni issues, and it differs from one newspaper to another and from one country to another. There is seasonal coverage for Yemeni issues for example when there is an election or a kidnapping where the victim is a foreigner. Other than that Arab press deserves to be criticized for neglecting the great motion that takes place inside of Yemen.