The Yemen war's latest casualty is the press

  • Naseh Shaker
  • 19 Sep 2019

The last surviving English paper in Yemen, the Yemen Observer, printed its final issue this year while only a handful of Arabic papers remain.

A newspaper hawker in Sanaa shows an old copy of the Yemen Observer, which was the last surviving English newspaper until it shut down earlier this year. ( Naseh Shaker / TRT World )

SANAA — Newsstand owners in the capital Sanaa say it's been over a year since they sold their last issue of the Yemen Observer, while others say the last issue was sold at the beginning of the year – but no one has been able to pinpoint an exact month.

"The last beacon of local English press has shutdown," said Hesham Al Kibsi, a journalist for the tri-weekly paper, stressing the shutdown will, "definitely leave a mark. It gradually began to shut down due to financial problems."

Al Kibsi, who joined the paper in 2010, said there were no more ads to sustain the cost of the paper, forcing the administration into radical fiscal consolidation in the early days of 2017.

The austerity measures began by cutting salaries in half, reducing the number of pages and issues per week before shutting down completely, according to Al Kibsi.

The Yemen Observer is considered an independent paper and became recognised for its (Pro-Saleh) coverage during the 2011 protest that toppled the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh. More recently, it was recognised for continuing to publish, somehow, despite Sanaa being under the control of Houthi rebels.

Getting the last print edition of the paper was very hard if not impossible with 80 percent of the staff having left the paper before the shutdown even though their names continued to appear in the masthead.

It's not clear if the paper paid its dues to staff, but Al Kibsi denies there were pending fees for any staff. "The paper is always serious about paying our due payments," Al Kibsi told TRT World.

"February was the last paycheck, and then the following month they managed to squeeze in some issues," he noted.

 Another source who asked to remain anonymous—because she isn't authorised to speak to media—said there were only two issues in February, and the final one was in March, the source told TRT World.

Al Kibsi said he currently works as a freelance journalist, but some of the staff have been self-employed since the shutdown.

The Yemen Observer's office seen from the outside in Sanaa, Yemen.()

"I work as a taxi driver"

In July this year, Editor-in-Chief, Abdul Aziz Oudah confirmed the shutting of the paper, saying he is ready to comment on the reasons for the paper to unexpectedly shut down.

Oudah allowed us to visit the paper's office on Police College Street and when we arrived the bodyguard, Naser Mohammed, opened the door for us. There is a mosque to the east of the building, a school to the west, a two-story building inside its yard and a garage overlooking the street.

No staff was inside except Mohammed who said he joined the paper last January and since it ceased production he is guarding the office, stressing he has been unpaid since March.

"Currently, I work as a taxi driver," said the 22-year-old, whose taxi was parked outside the office. He was recently married and lives inside the office with his wife, hoping the paper will resume issuing soon.

Final issue

For the last two years before it shut down, it's been hard to find an issue of the only English newspaper in Yemen at newsstands except near Sanaa University or near the Old City of Sanaa.

The publisher, Faris Sanabani, who has close relations to the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as a press secretary of Saleh, founded it in 1996 with the statement: "To provide comprehensive, trustworthy and unbiased information of Yemeni affairs and to constantly improve the professionalism of our staff and their lives through the compound effect."

Though the paper was not issued regularly, it's unexpected disappearance, without bidding farewell, symbolised the deteriorating state of journalism in Yemen. An official at the paper said it could be resumed at any moment if the current financial crisis is lifted and the war ends.

In January the paper made a last-ditch attempt to kickstart itself by establishing an Arabic Edition to "gain more ads after it reached a point that it was able to issue one paper per week" one source told me.

In February,  the paper notified readers in a post on its official Facebook page, publishing a screenshot of an issue from January. 

"It was a cry for attracting [Arabic]  advertisers, especially the number of foreigners has decreased in Yemen," the anonymous official told TRT World because she was not authorised to speak to media. 

Naser Mohammed, who serves as a bodyguard at the Yemen Observer office, stands by his taxi with a copy of the newspaper in the back of the car.()

The two editions were mixed in one paper that consists of eight pages, four in Arabic and four in English. However, the attempt at surviving financial problems through issuing two editions proved unsuccessful, and the paper ceased publishing. 

When I was leaving the office, an Arabic issue of the paper could be seen inside the taxi parked outside. The issue date was  July 25, but the bodyguard said it was not an official issue for sale.

Oudah promised to provide TRT World with its final March issue, but that promise did not materialise.

A handful of Arabic papers

Wadai Ghanim, 33, who has been working in newsstands in Tahrir Square for 20 years, said he has no issue of the Yemen Observerwhat so ever and the last issue delivered to him was near the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019.

"There is no English newspaper," Ghanim responded to a question if he still has an issue stressing that even Arabic newspapers "are gone" for the most part.

"What's left of Arabic newspapers can be counted on one hand," said Ghanim while sitting on a pile of second-hand textbooks. His newsstand was the most popular in Tahrir Square, he claimed.

Ghanim didn't hesitate to show the only issue of the Yemen Observer he had left – an old issue dating from December 2007, confirming he gathers past issues of papers from readers to sell to restaurants owners who use it in food packaging. 

The slow death of journalism 

Though there are tens of online English websites in Yemen, the quality is not high and is predominantly based on translations, not journalism.

"All media outlets around the world have a political orientation or affiliation in addition to being funded by ads and sales," Al Kibsi said. "When both of these factors are gone, they eventually shut down."

Before the unification of Yemen in 1990, there were two English newspapers in the south of Yemen published in the 1960s, the Aden Chronicle and The Recorder.

The front door of the now closed Yemen Observer English language newspaper in Sanaa, Yemen.()

After the unification of south and north Yemen, the Republic of Yemen enjoyed a period of robust journalism with Dr Abdul Aziz Al Saqqaf establishing the Yemen Times in 1991.

Then Yemen Observer was established in 1996, Yemen Post in 2007, National Yemen at an unknown date, and the tabloid Yemen Fox after the 'Arab Spring' in 2011. As political disputes intensified, Yemen's papers and the space for a free press started to shrink.

The Yemen Fox, Yemen Post, and National Yemen all closed before the Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014.

When Saudi Arabia launched its military intervention to restore the internationally recognised government of Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, many of the independent Arabic daily newspapers were forced to close under threat of attack or financial issues from the blockade.

The English newspaper, the Yemen Times, was among those that ceased printing as a sign of the shrinking freedom of the press in Sanaa. Its editor, Nadia Al Sakkaf was the minister of information in the Hadi government, so when Hadi fled from Sanaa in February 2015, the paper came under pressure in Sanaa from the Houthis and Saleh alliance.

The Yemen Observer vowed to continue online, but its website is no longer available. With no online presence, it continued to struggle for survival since the beginning of the war longer than the other, but couldn't continue any longer.

The Yemen war has claimed so many lives and has also led to the unexpected death of Yemen's print press – the worst possible time for local journalism to die. The death of local media in both English and Arabic is also the death of Yemenis telling their own story to the world.