Yemen: “My role involves a great deal of accuracy and impartiality and the need to preserve the safety of my team”

Thuraya Dammaj is a Yemeni journalist and the editor of the online media Yemen Future. She has been covering the bloody conflict in Yemen which started in 2014 and is a witness of the political instability in the country and the growing hostility towards the press. In this interview, Thuraya tells us about her challenges as head of news and her responsibilities towards her team. She points at journalists’ challenging working conditions, including crippling poverty due to low wages, widespread attacks and threats against them, and she shares her tips to make it in the profession.

Credit : Thuraya Dammaj

Twenty-one media violations have been recorded in the third quarter of 2022 by the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate. How would you describe the state of press freedom and independence of the press in Yemen?

Yemen ranks as one of the worst places for journalists in the world. The country has been at war for nearly nine years and is witnessing horrific incidents of violations against journalists that prevent the simplest forms of press freedom and independence.
At the time of writing these words, about 50 Yemeni journalists have been killed by warring parties since 2014. During the war all opposition media outlets in densely populated Houthi areas were shut down, while those located in areas of the internationally recognized Yemeni government succumbed to polarization and counter-incitement rhetoric. Moreover, the war has left thousands of journalists out of job, putting at risk their livelihoods, as part of the relentless clampdown on freedom of expression and civil rights defenders.

As editor of the online media "Yemen Future",  what are your daily challenges?

The daily challenges faced by the Yemeni journalist vary, and may increase for a "female chief editor", between the lack of capabilities, the scarcity of resources, the lack of security and safety means, and the deterioration of services necessary for the continuation of journalistic work, such as Internet and  electricity shut downs... Yemeni female journalists are trying to hold on and continue to tell the truth with limited resources. In a part of the world which is overwhelmed by a torrent of incitement, disinformation, and retaliation threatening  journalism and independent reporting, my role as an editor-in-chief involves a great deal of accuracy and impartiality and the need to preserve the safety of my colleagues in the editorial team. In addition to the security threats in a country that has been at war for nearly 9 years, female journalists face other challenges related to the conservative nature of the Yemeni society, making them vulnerable  to blackmailing and cyberbullying, sometimes by colleagues, in addition to the difficulty of obtaining information from sources, who may be more inclined to speak to male journalists.

You have been reporting from Yemen at least since the war began in 2014. What are the security issues you have been facing? 

There are many security issues faced by Yemeni journalists in general and Yemeni women journalists in particular. In addition to the security risks posed by the war itself, Yemeni journalists have been working without work contracts, life or health insurance, as a result of the weak press and media infrastructures. In addition, the war also resulted in loss of salary and safety protection. Journalists also face constant risk of death, starvation, enforced disappearance, murder or imprisonment... Moreover, some warring parties (the Houthi movement in particular) seek to block social media. The group has not only closed all opposition media in the areas under its control, but has also issued two (repressive) regulations regarding the electronic press and audio-visual and print media, as well as a code of conduct for public and mixed sector employees, imposing restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of publication, threatening infringers with punishment.
Impunity prevails for all cases involving journalists and the perpetrators are not brought to justice.

Would you have any safety tips to share with other women journalists reporting from conflict zones?

Despite the theoretical concern for the safety of journalists at the international and regional levels, attacks on journalists continue to increase, raising legitimate questions about the impact and effectiveness of international and regional mechanisms for the protection of journalists and their rights, and about press freedom monitoring and the handling of complaints, at all levels. 

It is therefore necessary to study this topic on the one hand, and on the other hand to raise awareness of the importance of United Nations resolutions, declarations, commitments and action plan on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. Technical knowledge should also be a way to further protect against the risks of information theft, shut down of social media and extortion.

Are there any gender stereotypes associated with the coverage of the war in Yemen?

There are gender stereotypes but in my personal opinion they are not specific to covering the war in Yemen, or even to the profession of journalism and media in general.  The stereotypes are related to the nature of Yemeni society itself, its culture, customs and traditions, but these images may intensify in terms of covering the war, given that society believes that women should remain away from the battlefields, whether as a warrior or as a journalist covering the facts of the fighting. 

Why do you think women's involvement in the coverage of war is important? 

Yemeni society, with its nature, culture, and traditions, is conservative, but this has a dual effect: while it discourages women's participation in press and media coverage of the war, on the other hand, it opposes - or at least often hesitates to - harming them. This, of course, does not mean that the society may not do so. Women's participation in covering the war is therefore important from two perspectives: for women themselves, as it empowers to perform their tasks and deliver their message as their male colleagues do. On the other hand, their participation is necessary for the journalistic message itself, as women may be better able to perform journalistic tasks, whether in covering the war or otherwise, given the dual impact of the nature, culture and traditions of Yemeni society.

What are Yemeni women journalists' most pressing needs right now?

I believe that the most urgent needs of Yemeni women journalists are protection and appropriate sources of income to perform their tasks and meet the requirements of their lives. It is true that many Yemeni women journalists still need more training, but in my personal opinion, their needs also include making room for them, being empowered and trusted.

Any message you would like to convey to women journalists in the world on 8 march?

I would tell them that they are fine and brilliant, that they must remain alert and their memories must not forget the issues of colleagues who work in regions that are more miserable and more dangerous. To Yemeni women journalists, I would say this: You must continue your quest to impose yourselves, perform your tasks and storm all fields with boldness and confidence. Don’t wait for anyone to give way. I also hope that Yemeni women journalists will be keen to constantly develop themselves and their skills, and that they will take advantage of every available opportunity and every possible assistance, and even seek to create opportunities herself.

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