Last autumn, Yemen’s struggle for freedom has reached heights never seen before. With the country’s steady descent into civil war, media outlets, private and public alike have started paying an even heavier price to the conflict. Seven journalists have been killed, since the start of this year.
As a journalist and General Secretary of the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YSJ) Marwan Dammaj’s is a symbol of this freedom struggle. Highly respected by peers and fellow union activists, and father of two, Marwan Dammaj, has spent the last two decades working for media and championing journalists’ rights in Yemen.
Dammaj made his first foray into the world of media in the 1990s, working for various local papers, including Ennas (The People), Al Ousbou’ (The Week), which he co-founded, and El Shura (The Parliament) the Yemeni Union of Popular Forces’ publication, until the ransacking of its offices in 2005.
He then went on to become the Managing editor of El Thawri (The Revolutionary), the Yemen Socialist Party’s weekly, where he worked until 2013 before accepting the key post of Deputy Chief Editor of the State owned El Thawra newspaper, the biggest newspaper in the country.
Marwan has an outstanding track record of achievement in campaigning for journalists’ rights and social justice. As his career bloomed, so did his deep commitment to defending press freedom.
A YJS board member since 2004, he took on several responsibilities in the union, chairing its Freedoms’ Committee, and acting as Treasurer, before his election in 2009, as YJS Secretary General. He led the YJS’s campaign against penal prosecution, jail sentences and the use of martial law against journalists who, at the time, were routinely prosecuted by government bodies.
It would be daring to try to encapsulate years of daily struggle for freedom in a few paragraphs. Recalling the milestone campaigns of this struggle is the best we can do.
There was the battle to free Abdulkarim El Khaiwani. A former Chief Editor of the online newspaper Al-Shoura and recipient of the Amnesty International Human Rights Journalism under Threat Award, Al Khaiwani was arrested in June 2008 and sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly conspiring with a terrorist organisation. Following a global campaign in which Dammaj was instrumental, Al Khaiwani was pardoned by President Ali Abdullah Saleh in March 2009. Sadly, he would be gunned down, exactly six years later, last March, in Sanaa.
In March 2011, as revolution swept the streets of Yemen, the YJS, led by Dammaj, officially endorsed the demands of the demonstrators for political reform and democracy. The popular movement eventually led to the resignation of president Saleh.
In 2012, following a major YJS/IFJ campaign, the Yemeni Interior Ministry lifted the ban imposed on Al Jazeera and promised to re-issue work permits to its employees in the country.
In July 2013, thanks to combined international and YJS efforts, synchronized by Dammaj, investigative journalist Abdul Elah Shaie was released from prison, to serve out the remaining two of his five-year sentence under house arrest. He had been sentenced in 2010 for exposing civilian deaths caused by a U.S. missile strike.
A few months later, as YJS delegate at the IFJ Congress held in Dublin, Dammaj raised awareness on the ongoing struggle and dangers facing Yemeni media workers.
Resilient and uncompromised, Dammaj continues to do what he never stopped doing since graduating from Sanaa Journalism School: reporting the truth, condemning attacks on journalists, and safeguarding the integrity and the independence of the Yemen Journalists Syndicate.