How Yemeni Governments Dealt with Freedom of Opinion and Expression
By Abdulrahman Hassan Mojamil – Yemeni Political and Researcher
Freedom of opinion and expression is considered one of the individual and fundamental rights of humans. This right includes freedom to express opinions, thoughts, beliefs, and artistic, cultural, and religious expression, also freedom of the press, media, and education. The individual has the right to express his opinion in general, whether that is through writing, publishing, demonstrating, or public speech or social media. From this point, freedom of opinion and expression means: “the ability to express freely without censorship, restrictions, or governmental prosecution, provided that the content of these works does not contain thoughts and opinions that are considered a violation of the laws and customs of the state or group that allowed freedom of opinion and expression.” This type of freedom is accompanied by some types of rights, such as freedom of worship and freedom of the press. Therefore, this right has acquired great importance for the individual and the group. For this reason, the state and international and human rights organizations have given this right great importance as well through enacting laws and legislation that preserve human, as an individual and a group, has the right to express his opinion freely and without any harassment. Despite this, a large gap has emerged between those laws and legislation and what is exercised on the ground, meaning that there is a gap between theory and practice, and among the countries that suffer from the presence and widening of that gap “The Republic of Yemen”, despite its ratification of international and regional laws that preserve this right, and the text of its legislation and internal laws to guarantee it, the reality since the founding of the Republic in 1990 tells otherwise, and that there has been a disparity in the violation of this right from time to time, based on the above, this study report will sheds light on the legal framework related to the right to freedom of opinion and expression in each of the international, regional and national charters of the Republic of Yemen and compares them with each other, in addition to tracking how successive Yemeni governments dealt with this right from the year 1990 until the year 2022.
First: The Legal Framework for Freedom of Opinion and Expression
The legal framework for the right to freedom of opinion and expression refers to the international, regional, and national legislation and laws of the country under study, which stipulate everything related to this right, defining it and clarifying its limits and how to guarantee and preserve it, and comparing the texts related to this right in the three previous legislations and broaching the relevant agreements with this right. Accordingly, this legal framework will be broached as follows:
A- The International Charter
The International Charter is mainly focusing on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the International Covenants on Political, Civil Rights, Social and Economic Rights in 1966, in addition to international agreements related to the right.
1- Universal Declaration of Human Rights -1948
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to embrace opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any means regardless of frontiers.”
It is clear that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates the right to enjoy freedom of opinion and expression for any individual and by any means, regardless of the limits that may prevent this.
2- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) -1966
Three paragraphs of Part Three of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights regarding freedom of opinion and expression stipulate that:
1- Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3- The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
It is noted that the three paragraphs of the Covenant confirmed what was stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with regard to freedom of opinion and expression, especially the second paragraph, but they did not stipulate (enjoyment) as stated in the Declaration and were limited to emphasizing the right to freedom of expression.
Additionally, the third paragraph stated that o freedom of opinion and expression may subject to some restrictions in accordance with the two conditions stipulated in the same paragraph.
3- The International Covenant on Social and Economic Rights 1966
This covenant, which was approved on February 16, 1966 and entered into force on March 23, 1976, did not stipulate any articles related to the right to freedom of opinion and expression, since it is not within its jurisdiction.
4- International Agreements Related to The Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
The African Charter on Human Rights states that “every individual has the right to obtain information, and every human being has the right to express and disseminate his ideas within the framework of laws and regulations.”
The American Convention on Human Rights states that “Every human being has the right to freedom of thought and expression, and this right includes freedom to search for, receive, and impart various types of information and ideas to others, regardless of frontiers, whether orally, in writing, in print, in artistic form, or by any means he chooses.”
The European Convention on Human Rights also states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises”
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Declaration on Human Rights states that “Every human being has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes freedom to express opinions without interference and to request, obtain and impart information in written or printed form or by any other means he chooses.”
From the aforementioned, it is clear that all international agreements have taken into account the right to freedom of opinion and expression and given it their attention, confirming what is stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, through their agreement on two main principles regarding the right, represented in
1: The right to hold opinions and obtain information whatever they may be.
2: The right to choose any means to express opinions.
These agreements differ regarding the limits of this right, between those who do not pay attention to the limits of its exercise and those who are restricted in accordance with the laws and regulations established by countries.
B- The Regional Charter
The Regional Charter of Human Rights in the Republic of Yemen is based on:
- Cairo Declaration of Human Rights 1969
The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights regarding freedom of opinion and expression discussed the right in detail in four paragraphs according to the following:
“A- Every human being has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as it is an integral part of internationally recognized human rights, and exercising this right entails special duties and responsibilities.
B – The state has a duty to protect and facilitate the exercise of this right, while at the same time preserving its legitimate national integrity, preserving its interests, and promoting harmony, prosperity, justice, and equality in society.
C- The exercise of this right is subject to some restrictions, provided that they are specified by the law and are limited to the following cases:
- War propaganda.
- Advocating violence or hatred based on religion or belief, nationality, race, color, language, gender, or social and economic status.
3- Respecting human rights or not harming the reputation of others.
4- Matters related to national security and public order.
5- The necessary measures to preserve public health and morals and prevent chaos and crime.
D- The state works to spread and disseminate the principles of brotherhood, tolerance, justice, and other exalted values, in addition to rejecting all feelings of hatred, resentment, and extremism. Freedom of expression should not be used to violate sanctities, insult the sanctity of prophets, religions, and religious symbols, or detract from the moral and ethical values of society.
The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights came to affirm that every human being has the right to freedom of opinion and expression as an inherent right which is internationally recognized. However, it attached this right to responsibilities and duties resulting from its exercise and set restrictions for it and specified them in the text of the declaration, basing all of this on what was stated in Islamic law.
- Arab Charter on Human Rights 2004
The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Tunisia hosted on May 23, 2004, affirmed the following in regard to freedom of opinion and expression:
“(1) This Charter guarantees the right to information and freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to seek information and ideas, receive them, and transmit them to others by any means and without regard to geographical borders.”
“(2) These rights and freedoms are exercised within the framework of the basic components of society and are subject only to restrictions imposed by respect for the rights or reputation of others or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals.”
We note that the Arab Charter for Human Rights has guaranteed the right to freedom of opinion and expression alongside the right to media under the framework of the basic components of society, specifying the restrictions on exercising that right in Paragraph No. (2). Accordingly, what was stated in the Arab Charter for Human Rights did not differ much from what was stated in the precedent international conventions, except for the framework for exercising that right and subjecting it to certain restrictions.
C- The National Charter
The Yemeni Constitution issued in 1991, in Chapter Two regarding the basic rights and duties of citizens regarding the right to freedom of opinion and expression, affirmed the following:
“Every citizen has the right to participate in political, economic, social, and cultural life. The state guarantees freedom of thought and expression of opinion verbally, writing, and photography within the limits of the law. Amendments were made to this constitution in 1994 and 2001, but they did not affect the articles related to the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
After the youth revolution of 2011, and in the National Dialogue Conference, the Rights and Liberties Group agreed that “freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed, and every individual has the right to express his opinion by speech, writing, photography, drawing, sign, or other means of publication and expression, and it is not permissible to imprison a person or a journalist on the basis of an opinion; no individual may be forced to reveal his opinions, ideas, or beliefs in any way.”
These decisions were then reflected in the 2015 draft constitution in three articles related to the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which are:
Every human being has the right to freedom of belief, thought and opinion in a manner that does not contravene the constitution, and it is a crime to impose any opinion, thought or belief on any human being by force.”
The right to express opinions and political choices is guaranteed to everyone through public gatherings, marches, demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, and all forms of peaceful protests, without weapons, and with mere prior notification, provided that this does not result in damage to public or private property, or to the rights and freedoms of others.
Any disruption or derogation of these rights is prohibited.”
Freedom to express opinion, freedom to obtain information or ideas, freedom of literary, artistic and cultural creativity, freedom of scientific research and freedom to criticize the performance of state institutions are guaranteed to every person.”
The Yemeni law on freedom of the press and publications affirmed in the second chapter, under the general principles, that “freedom of knowledge, thought, journalism, expression, communication, and access to information is one of the rights of citizens to ensure the expression of their thoughts verbally, writing, photography, drawing, or any other means of expression.” It is guaranteed to all citizens in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and the provisions of this law.”
From the above, we note that the National Charter of the Republic of Yemen affirms in its constitutional and legal texts to guarantee and ensure freedom of opinion and expression by any means in accordance with the law without harming the public rights of society or any of the state’s property.
Second: How Successive Yemeni Governments Dealt with Freedom of Opinion and Expression (1990-2022)
After examining the legal framework for freedom of opinion and expression, we found that the international, regional, and national charters for freedom of opinion and expression are guaranteed. The Republic of Yemen, as an integral part of the international community, has ratified both the international and regional charters, regardless of whether it ratified them willingly or as a result of external pressure. Yemen reflected it in its constitutional and legal texts in the National Charter, which require it to adhere to what it signed and ratified, as well as bear the consequences of any practice that is considered a violation of freedom of opinion and expression.
With regard to the International Covenant, the Republic of Yemen ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on February 9, 1986, and both the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenants on Social and Economic Rights on February 29, 1987. With regard to the Regional Charter, Yemen is considered among the seven Arab countries that ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights pursuant to Law No. 45 of 2008.
In order to trace the commitment of the Republic of Yemen to what it ratified and to what its constitutional and legal texts stipulated regarding freedom of opinion and expression, we review how successive governments dealt with freedom of opinion and expression over periods linked to defining moments, either at the international level or at the national level, since the declaration of unity on May 22, 1990, until 2022.
First: The Unity Government Of 1990, Haider Abu Bakr Al-Attas, June 16th.
The 1990 program of the unity government within the Social Services under the Media Department indicated the extreme importance of strengthening the democratic foundations and freedom of opinion in the next stage and recruiting them all for the purposes of comprehensive national construction. It also focused on developing the national press so that it fulfills its role and mission in a manner consistent with the national and democratic concepts.
Second: The 1993 Coalition Government, Haid Abu Bakr Al-Attas, July 4th.
The coalition government’s Social and Cultural Services Development Program stated in Paragraph No. 1 under the Media Section that print, audio, and visual media should be used to serve the needs of the people, express a sincere and responsible commitment to the principle of freedom of opinion and expression, respect views and counter views, and highlight the significance of social and cultural services and to highlighting the characteristics of political and party pluralism in the society.
Third: Government Of 1997, Faraj Bin Ghanem, May 14th.
In its program, in regard to freedoms and human rights, this government affirmed its respect and protection of public freedoms and human rights guaranteed by Islamic law, the Constitution, and stipulated in the International Charters by implementing a set of deterrent measures for anyone who restricts or attacks the public freedoms of citizens. It also emphasized the completion of laws and legislation that guarantee and support public freedoms, in addition to encouraging citizens to exercise their rights, including -as indicated by the program- encouraging the issuance of newspapers and magazines to contribute to freedom of opinion and thought.
Fourth: Government of The General People’s Congress, 1998, Abdul Karim Al-Iryani, June
The Al-Eryani government’s program did not address freedom of opinion and expression, but it referred to ensuring and preserving human rights in confirmation of what was stated in the Charter of the General People’s Congress and in accordance with the Constitution, applicable laws, and international agreements and treaties ratified by the Republic of Yemen.
Fifth: Government of 2001, Abdul Qadir Bajamal, April
In the second item of the 2001 Bajamal government program in the field of human development, the program emphasized freedom of the press and publishing, consolidating the principle of freedom of opinion and expression as a basic human right, and encouraging the establishment of modern civil institutions in the field of journalism, printing, and publishing.
Sixth: Government of 2003, Abdul Qadir Bajamal, May 17th.
In affirmation of the principles and practice of implementing human rights, the government’s program for the year 2003 stipulated the expansion of democratic practice, emphasizing respect for the diversity of opinion, non-monopoly of truth, and respect for the political rights of the opposition to compete and express their opinions in all ways guaranteed by law. In addition to pointing out the need to strengthen the role of the press.
Seventh: Government of National Accord 2011, Muhammad Salem Basindwa, September 7th.
Under the heading of other government services within the field of media, the Government of National Accord’s program emphasized the necessity of promoting and ensuring freedom of opinion and expression and protecting it with legal legislation by completing the issuance of laws and legislation related to freedom of the media. This includes issuing the audio-visual and electronic media law, which allows the private sector to establish satellite channels (TV, radio, and electronic) in addition to expanding the space for views and counterviews in the visual, audio, and print media.
Eighth: National Partnership Government 2014, Khaled Mahfouz Bahah, November 7th.
The National Partnership Government did not refer to freedom of opinion and expression in its program. The government’s main focus was on implementing the Peace and Partnership Agreement.
After 2014 and following the Houthi group entering the capital Sana’a, Yemen entered a phase of division and fragmentation, which led to the formation of two governments, the first associated with the internationally recognized legitimate authority and headquartered in the temporary capital, Aden, and the other associated with the Houthi group under the name of the National Salvation Government and headquartered in the capital Sana’a. Because both governments were formed in conditions of war, neither of their programs stipulated anything regarding freedom of opinion and expression.
From the foregoing, it is evident to us that the majority of successive Yemeni governments have referred to and placed an emphasis on freedom of opinion and expression in their programs, and the governments that haven’t do so because the stage at which the government was formed requires them to focus on issues that are more important from the government’s perspective than freedom of expression.
The practice on the ground contradicts what successive Yemeni administrations have formally pledged to uphold in international, regional, and national accords that specify the protection and safeguarding of freedom of opinion and speech. It is highlighted that since the Republic of Yemen’s declaration of unity in May 1990 until 2022, the number of cases of freedom of opinion and expression violations has increased. Events on a national and international scale had a negative impact on the right to freedom of expression.
After the declaration of unity in May 1990, which coincided with the demise of the socialist model and the attempt to spread the democratic model through the use of American pressure tools, a form of democracy predominated on the Yemeni scene, and the Yemeni citizen was given a space of freedom, through which he was able to establish independent and opposition newspapers that adopted a different tone that had not been witnessed before in the region. During the same period, Yemen ratified many international treaties in the field of human rights, such as the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, but this period did not last long, and the situation quickly changed.
The Press and Publications Law of 1990 allowed for its use starting in 1994 as a means of exerting pressure on activists, and it became more common following the September 11 attacks. The Yemeni government passed an anti-terrorism law and used it to repress critics, impose restrictions on journalists and activists, and revoke the licenses of media channels that supported the opposition to the government. As a result, Yemen’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index fell from 103rd in 2003 to 140th in 2006. During the government’s war with the armed Houthi group in 2004, the severity of violations against journalists and activists for freedom of speech increased.
On April 19, 2006, a car belonging to the Ministry of the Interior made an attempt to kidnap journalist Nabila Al-Hakimi. Additionally, on July 2, Abdo Al-Asili, a journalist and technical secretary at Al-Nahar newspaper, was killed as a result of an article he published criticizing government officials.
Yemen has increased its violations of the right to freedom of speech, as was previously highlighted. The issue came to a climax in 2009 with the creation of a specialized court to investigate alleged press crimes, which in the government’s words, resulted from crossing the red lines it establishes, most notably criticism of the President of the Republic, contrary to the text of Yemeni Constitution Article 148.
The 11th of February Revolution in 2011, also known as the Arab Spring Revolution, was sparked by the ongoing deterioration of human rights in Yemen, most notably freedom of speech and opinion. The Houthi group entered the capital Sana’a and seized power that same year, and with it, freedom of speech entered another phase that was no better than the first. The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate reported that more than 16 journalists were killed between 2011 and 2015, along with other cases of torture and forced disappearances.
Thus, freedom of opinion and expression became contested by the three parties. Methods and justifications differed from one party to the other. Cases of killing of journalists rose to 50 from the year 2011 until December 2022, distributed among the previous three parties, in addition to a small percentage for other parties. Additionally, cases of torture, assault, and arbitrary arrest even affected social media activists.
After reading this study, it became abundantly evident to us that, with regard to human rights in general and freedom of thought and expression in particular, there is a growing gap between theory and practice. We observe that Yemen’s constitution, laws, and government initiatives all call for the protection of the right to freedom of thought and expression, but in practice it does the exact opposite, at times using the legal limitations as an excuse for breaking them, and at other times disobeying the law and its commitments if it infringes the interests of powerful individuals.
The report concludes with some recommendations in order to enhance freedom of opinion and expression in Yemen, which can be summarized as follows:
- The acts of the Yemeni governments must correspond to the commitments made in their programs on freedom of opinion and expression.
- Laws should be formulated to guarantee freedom of opinion and expression and obtaining and disseminating information by any legitimate means.
- The authorities and governments must understand that freedom of opinion and expression helps to evaluate their performance by highlighting imbalances, and not to be interpreted as it targets their authority.
- Governments must work to provide a regulatory and legal environment that allows the emergence of a multi-opinion and open media sector.
- The media, journalists, and social activists should avoid getting involved in disputes between the parties.
- The conflicting parties must quickly release opinion and expression activists from their prisons and stop the torture against them.
Find the article on the Musaala Organization for Human Rights website.
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 You can reach the writer via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 This study report was supervised by Professor Abdul Hamid Humaid Jarid, teaching assistant at the Department of Political Science, Sana’a University.
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