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Covering Yemen Imperils Journalists

Benjamin Wiacek offers a first-hand account for Al-Monitor about trying to report on the protests at the US embassy in Yemen, detailing how he was assaulted by security forces as his wife and another colleague looked on. He writes that what happened to him is unfortunately a regular occurrence for many Yemeni journalists.
Protesters run as riot police fire tear gas at them outside the U.S. embassy in Sanaa September 13, 2012. Hundreds of Yemeni demonstrators stormed the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on Thursday in protest at a film they consider blasphemous to Islam, and clashes with security forces injured at least 15 people. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST RELIGION)

I was home when I heard what sounded like gunshots; in a couple of minutes I got the first news about the US Embassy in Yemen, saying some people were storming the building. I got my video camera equipment ready and took a taxi to the embassy with two female colleagues, one who happens to be my wife. 

We were close to the embassy when we began seeing the black smoke coming from the area and some people running in the street. Two minutes after we got out of the car and began walking, a tear gas canister flew our way. I began filming as the air filled with tear gas and we could hear gunshots being fired. Suddenly, canisters landed next to us, hurting our eyes and throats and we ran into a small shop to take shelter. At that point, I saw one protester take the canister and throw it back at security.

A few minutes later, as things seemed quieter I went back outside, leaving the other two behind, and started to film again. I saw the Central Security Forces at the end of the street shooting tear gas again, sometimes at close range on people a few meters away from them. I was filming the whole scene when officers started to run in the street toward me. 

I immediately ran back to the shop to seek shelter, but the door was locked. In the few seconds it took my companions to open it, security had caught me and started to push me violently.  One of them pointed his gun in front of my face yelling something I cannot remember. I immediately showed them my press card, obtained by the Yemeni Ministry of Information, and screamed that I’m a journalist. 

They did not seem to care and tried to take my video camera from my hands as they entered the shop. My colleagues were scared but the guys continued to scream at me, saying they wanted the camera. My wife tried to intervene, explaining I was a journalist, but they pushed her away. My camera fell on the floor as I was trying to protect myself from the soldiers.

I managed to put back the camera inside the bag to protect it and went outside. The men caught me from both sides, hitting my back with their batons, almost ripping my clothes. They pushed me violently and continued to scream for the camera. My colleague tried to photograph them assaulting me to have proof of the violence but they prevented her and again tried to steal the camera from her. She did not get the opportunity to take a photo so she was able to keep her camera.  

The men continued to push me and I fell on the ground on top on the bag, yelling that I would not give up the camera, that I was a journalist and it was my right to be here. Again, they tried, but I pulled the bag away from them with all my strength as if I was defending a child.

They finally asked instead for the memory card, which I also refused to give them while still on the ground. But with the loud screams and their anger, I caved in, and thought giving them the card was a compromise to save my camera. They then let us run away. We took shelter in a neighboring house to wait for the situation to calm down. There we were greeted warmly by a family whose kids took us to the farthest in the room in the house, staying in their house less than an hour before taking a taxi back home facing no problem.

In the car ride, reflecting on what happened, I was wondering if filming the protesters storming the embassy would have gotten me in the same trouble. It seems certain that filming the security response to protesters was the line that I crossed and that security’s actions and behavior has not changed since the revolution.

Journalists in Yemen generally have a hard time, especially when their reporting reflects negatively on the government. Human rights and press freedom organizations have reported on various violations against journalists in the past, especially Yemeni journalists who face greater dangers than foreign correspondents. They have risked their lives but few have gotten mainstream media attention. What happened to me is unfortunately a regular incident for many Yemeni journalists.

After hearing about what happened to me, a Yemeni colleague, Mohammed Al-Asaadi, who ironically was arrested in 2006 for criticizing violent protests against the Danish cartoons, told me: “This is the official recognition of journalists in Yemen. Now you are a certified reporter. Keep safe!”

Benjamin Wiacek is a freelance journalist based in Yemen since 2010 and editor-in-chief of La Voix du Yémen.


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