International experts assist journalists in developing press law

Yemeni journalists sought advice from international media law experts on how to create a more liberal press law at a workshop in the capital, Sana, on Wednesday.

The event, titled "Developing Media Legislation in Yemen" was addressed by Yemen’s Minister of Justice Dr Adnan al-Jifry. He said that the draft press law put forward by Ministry of Information (MoI) in May was ‘hasty.’

He pointed out that this draft had created an angry reaction from journalists, as it was full of prohibitions and restrictions and that there would be some amendments of certain sections of the 1990 press law.

However, he did not give any details as to the changes that are in mind, only that it would fall in line with the orders given by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to abolish jail sentences for journalists.

The legal amendment will also include a section on the function of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate (YJS) and its power.

The event was organised by the Joint Yemeni Media Development Programme (JYMDP) a Danish initiative programme to be supported by donors and the YJS, in cooperation with the German and US embassies in Yemen.

Al-Jifry said after the amendments are made, the law will be passed to the consultative council, a government institution appointed by the president, for further debate and discussion.

"We believe the media in Yemen is at a crossroads. A number of changes have been achieved during the last few years in Yemen.

Unfortunately, the new draft law is a setback rather than a continuation of the positive trend as there are things in the law that do not comply with the international standards," Daniel Simsons, an international expert on media law from Article 19, an NGO based in London, said in Sana.

Journalists in Yemen have already rejected the new draft of the press and publications law saying it is even more restrictive than the existing bill.

During the workshop, al-Jifry, who is the head of the government committee overseeing the amendments to the law, said he regretted that the YJS was not part of the committee.

“Journalists should be consulted as they are the beneficiaries of the law and the people concerned with the development of their profession,” he stressed.

"We need a press law that complies with developments and changes in the world. The Ministry of Information prepared this draft without consultation with us," YJS chairman, Mahboob Ali, said earlier.

The situation for journalists had looked set to improve in June 2004, when Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, specifically demanded the removal of a clause allowing the imprisonment of journalists under certain circumstances.

Although in the new draft, jail sentences have been removed, journalists object to clauses stopping them from “criticising the head of the state” or “publishing or exchanging anything that directly and personally prejudices monarchs and heads of brotherly and friendly states.”

The 1990 law bars criticism of the president and lists a wide range of vaguely worded offences that can land a journalist in court and prison, according to international media watchdog organisations.

Experts at the workshop said they hoped for positive results from the amended law.

"We hope to make a written overview of the situation and how the law can meet international standards. We will work on this during the coming few weeks and present it to the Yemeni stakeholders," Simsons said.

During the meetings the three international experts met with Yemeni officials, stakeholders and human rights activists, who raised concerns over the country’s penal code.

The death sentence can in theory be applied in cases where information related to national security or state secrets are published.

Some journalists called for the MoI, the press law and the press prosecution to be abolished and demanded liberalisation of all broadcast media. The YJS said that it would present its ideas and remarks on the press law as well as the other laws.

"The press law is overlapping with other laws. We will present a matrix of amendments of these laws," Hafiz al-Bukari, YJS Secretary-General said.