UN flight ban reduces Yemen access at critical time

Sam Oakford

Journaliste indépendant basé à New York et contributeur régulier d’IRIN

Overshadowed by Syria and Iraq, the war in Yemen has long struggled to compete for media attention. But it is also bedevilled by a lack of reliable information both for news organisations trying to cover the humanitarian crises and for aid agencies trying to access and help those most in need. And now, just as a cholera epidemic threatens to spiral out of control, IRIN has learnt that the nominal government of Yemen and its Saudi Arabian-led backers have moved to prevent journalists and human rights workers from travelling on UN chartered flights to the capital, further reducing coverage and access at a critical moment.

More than 17 million people are food insecure, and 6.8 million teeter “one step from famine” in Yemen, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council this week. Access for commercial and humanitarian cargo is limited, delayed, and impeded by the Saudi-led coalition. Medical supplies have been blocked by their opponents, the Houthi rebels.

After more than two years of war, Yemen’s depleted medical system is proving no match for a resurgent cholera epidemic. Abetted by malnutrition that weakens patients, the disease threatens to kill far more than the 470 already reported by the World Health Organization.

“The people of Yemen are being subjected to deprivation, disease, and death as the world watches,” said O’Brien. But that’s just the point: Are we able to watch?

Press access is severely curtailed across Yemen by numerous parties. Local journalists are at particular risk. Abuses have been extensively documented by courageous local groups like the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights. The Houthis and their allies loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh have been accused of arbitrarily arresting or disappearing journalists, blocking access to dozens of news sites, and raiding numerous outlets.

Against that backdrop, the Saudi-led coalition’s latest interference with UN flights to Sana’a essentially prohibits foreign journalists from reaching many of the areas hardest hit by malnutrition and airstrikes, or even from reporting on Houthi violations.

The door slams shut

UN officials and diplomats confirmed the obstruction campaign to IRIN, and journalists and human rights researchers said months-long attempts to get into Sana’a have been stymied, in some cases at the last minute.

“Two weeks ago I was trying to go on an UNHAS flight to cover the cholera and so I contact the UN, who actually organise who gets on the flights,” said one reporter based in Europe. “I was told they had been given blanket orders to not allow any journalists, researchers, or anyone who is not a humanitarian.”

UNHAS charters are primarily meant to facilitate the movement of aid workers. But commercial flights into Sanaa have been grounded for nearly a year by the Saudi-led coalition.

Sick or injured Yemenis in and around Sanaa are unable to leave the country for treatment without risking an arduous and uncertain trip south. For journalists and investigators, the commercial ban has meant the UN is effectively their only path into the most populated parts of Yemen.

It’s not the first time UN flights have been curbed. Restrictions were imposed on UNHAS flights into Sana’a shortly after the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015 and lasted right through until August 2016. Many journalists either had to give up on covering the conflict, or risk often dangerous alternative routes – as some still do.

But from August through December last year, 22 journalists flew in and out of Sana’a on UNHAS flights, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. UN officials said the increased coverage was palpable – and made a difference. Suddenly, Yemen’s plight was in the news a bit more.

During this time, a BBC camera crew was able to land in Sana’a and investigate one of the war’s deadliest incidents: a Saudi airstrike on a funeral hall that killed 140 people and wounded more than 500. Such a trip for a foreign journalist is now off the table.

The ban, said Iona Craig, a British journalist who has travelled in and out of Yemen for years, "all but rules out coverage in Houthi/Saleh territory by international media – so that's cholera, civilian casualties in airstrikes, and hunger".

Conspiracy of silence?

One French TV crew provided IRIN with a detailed summary of its attempts to enter the country, beginning last November. In December, the Yemeni government imposed new visa requirements on journalists. Visas proved difficult to obtain – a task made more complicated by duelling governments in Sana’a and Aden. Once it finally obtained authorisation, the team planned to explore stories on malnutrition, the sputtering medical system, and the cholera outbreak.

But by mid-May, journalists were again prohibited, regardless of their visa status. Shortly afterwards (around the time of the publication of an International Crisis Group report written by a staff member who had flown to Sana’a in April with the UN), researchers at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch received notification from the UN that they could no longer travel to Sana’a with UNHAS.

“We have been recently notified by the [Government of Yemen] that only authorised UN personnel and aid workers are allowed to enter Yemen using UNHAS flights, which are, as you know, primarily meant for this use,” Ahmed Ben Lassoued, spokesman for OCHA in Yemen, told IRIN by email. “We continue advocating to allow the journalists' access to all parts of Yemen, but in the meantime we have no choice but to abide by this decision, which is beyond our control.”

That notification to NGOs came just days before US President Donald Trump arrived in Riyadh, where he signed a weapons deal reportedly worth some $110 billion. Though thin on details, the package included $350 million worth of guided munition kits used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama had blocked the sale, reportedly out of concern for the number of civilians killed by Saudi-led forces.

According to the UN’s human rights office, the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for more than 3,000 civilian deaths since it began bombing Yemen in March 2015, attempting to dislodge Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“I just think [the Saudis] are trying to minimise coverage of what's happening in northern Yemen, and they are trying to silence advocacy," said one UN official based in Yemen who spoke to IRIN about the flight ban on condition of anonymity. "Journalists coming in means there will be more scrutiny of the impacts and consequences of the war, and giving a voice to the people of Yemen."

Terrible timing

The cholera outbreak is the latest crisis that reporters have struggled to cover, even before the most recent restrictions. Compounded by malnutrition and a breakdown in sanitation services, reported cases have ballooned to more than 53,000; nearly 500 people have died, and the World Health Organization projects 300,000 more cases in the coming months. Hardest hit is Sana’a, where doctors say hospitals are receiving multiple cases every minute.

“Cholera is relatively affordable and easy to prevent, but is not getting enough attention or support," said Arvind Kumar, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator in Yemen.

“We absolutely need more press coverage,” urged Kumar. “I'm not sure if any Western journalists have visited the hardest hit areas.”

Salah Daraghmeh, Yemen country director at Mercy Corps, said it can be difficult for aid groups to predict the course of the disease’s spread given the state of Yemen’s healthcare and sanitation system. “We have no clue honestly how the situation will be in the coming few weeks,” he said.

The media blackout comes amid rumors of an impending coalition assault on Hodeida, Yemen’s largest port. American military brass are debating if they will support such an operation, and whether to escalate assistance beyond refuelling and logistical backing. “We are hopeful that there will be a ceasefire during Ramadan but so far there is nothing,” said Daraghmeh.

Hodeida’s port, which has been bombed by the coalition previously, handles roughly 80 percent of the food that arrives to Sana’a  – sustenance that residents increasingly can only hope to purchase.

“What food there is, is largely unaffordable to the vast majority of the population, especially the most vulnerable such as the two million people who remain internally displaced,” O’Brien told the Security Council on Tuesday, warning against any military action to take the port.

Journalists at risk

Since the outbreak of war, Yemen has been one of the deadliest countries for members of the press. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 11 reporters were killed during 2015 and 2016. In January 2016, well-regarded Yemeni reporter Almigdad Mojalli was killed in a coalition airstrike while on assignment for Voice of America south of Sana’a. Mojalli had worked extensively for IRIN since February 2015, writing passionately about how the war affected his homeland.

Last week, two journalists – Takieddin al-Hudhaifi and Wael al-Absi – were killed in Taiz, reportedly victims of Houthi shelling.

Shuaib Almosawa, a Sana’a-based journalist, told IRIN that authorities can impede reporting by simply denying necessary permits to travel to certain areas. At times they reference past reporting that was disliked.

“While this can be reasonable, it’s sometimes aimed at preventing access to things authorities don’t want journalists to report on,” said Almosawa. “Houthis can be too suspicious of journalists they don’t have total command and control over.”

Rene Slama, Gulf and Yemen bureau chief at Agence France-Presse told IRIN that since March 2015 his staffing inside Yemen has dwindled to just one reporter. Other AFP journalists have fled the country due to death threats and serious injuries suffered while in the field.

“It is frustrating to cover the humanitarian situation – we are not covering it as we would like to,” said Slama. “We would like to ourselves be able to visit towns where there is hunger, where there is risk of famine, and describe the situation.”

With limited resources and access, Slama concedes his reporters may miss stories.

“Sometimes we report about fighting, or an incident, while the same day you have 200 kilometres east or north of this place something much more serious that we are not aware of,” said Slama. “The access to information is limited.”

Blindspots

Taiz, besieged by Houthi-Saleh forces and the site of ferocious fighting that claimed the lives of al-Hudhaifi and al-Absi, often goes without substantial coverage in the international media. There, the Houthis and their allies have been documented by the UN delaying shipments of medical supplies, part of a wider phenomenon among Houthi- and Saleh-aligned forces, according to Human Rights Watch. Similar interference in Syria garnered international attention, but less so in Yemen.

Access in Taiz – both for humanitarians and the press – is limited. One mechanism for obtaining more information about violations committed during the conflict, including the obstruction of humanitarian aid, would be an independent, international human rights investigation. That, however, has been blocked repeatedly by Gulf states and their allies at the Human Rights Council.

Also speaking before the Security Council this week was Radhya Almutawakel, chair of Mwatana. The group, which investigates violations committed by parties to the conflict, has likewise seen attempts to stifle it from a variety of sources.

Its most recent report highlighted landmines indiscriminately planted by Houthi and pro-Saleh forces that have reportedly killed 57 civilians, including 24 children and four women. Yet along with Mwatana Director Abdulrasheed Alfaqih, Almutawakel is currently marooned in the United States after a Saudi and Yemeni government campaign to depict the group as pro-Houthi. Informed by sources that they would be arrested if they landed in government areas – and told the same about returning to Houthi-held Sana’a – they remain stuck in New York.  

“There is a real man-made problem regarding the information in and about Yemen,” Almutawakel told IRIN before her appearance at the Council. “Only parties to the conflict have the tools to raise their voices.”

“We are facing a lot of difficulties, but they couldn’t stop us until now,” she added. “Things, however, are getting worse.”

so/ag

(TOP PHOTO: A doctor tends to cholera patients at al-Sabeen Hospital in Sana'a on 13 May 2017. Mohammed Hamoud/IRIN)