As Yemen’s Army moved in on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) long-standing haven in the south of the country last month, a parallel assault was launched by the country's Ministry of Defense — in the form of an unprecedented media campaign.
Since April 28, when troops first massed to launch a ground assault against an apparent al Qaeda training camp, the defense ministry has posted 23 videos via its 26 September media outlet — by comparison, only two military-related videos appeared on its YouTube channel in all of 2013. On an almost daily basis over the past month, footage of the Army’s "great successes" against the insurgents have been relayed by the defense ministry’s "moral guidance department." Commanders congratulate troops, and tanks and armored personnel carriers roll through seemingly deserted scrubland. Music is played over images of smiling soldiers.
A viewer could be forgiven for thinking there were no civilians living in the provincial border regions of Abyan and Shabwa, where the conflict has been raging; based on the information the military is releasing, it appears the only inhabitants of the area are al Qaeda militants. Meanwhile, Yemen’s Ministry of Defense claims its sanitized version of war equates to increased transparency.
Al Qaeda, meanwhile, is waging its propaganda war somewhat differently. A video posted on AQAP's media channel shows local residents in the Shabwa town of Azzan — where al Qaeda has long had a more significant presence than the government — being asked how they feel about the military campaign. Not surprisingly, there was a notable absence of criticism of AQAP.
A video highlighting the "heroic battles" of the Yemen Army.
Yemen's propaganda war has kept details of its US-backed military campaign hidden from almost any form of independent coverage. An assault launched on April 19 began with three days of US drone attacks, Yemeni air force strikes, and Yemeni Special Forces operations — including American commandos flying helicopters into Shabwa. But there has still been no independent verification of events on the ground.
When a TV crew from Al Jazeera tried to report from the conflict zone, they were put under "house arrest" in a hotel before being forced to return to Yemen's capital, Sanaa. Their removal came just days after the deportation of American journalist Adam Baron, who had spent more than three years reporting from Yemen. The final story Baron filed before his deportation focused on the battle Yemen’s government faces in the propaganda war being waged on social media. As Baron noted: “The amplification of nongovernmental voices is a new challenge for the government.”
Perhaps Baron and the Al Jazeera team are fortunate that their attempts to cover the most-recent conflict's impact on civilians resulted only in them being sent away. Yemeni journalists have long been intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, and even disappeared, but reporters and human rights activists whose work has challenged the official version of recent events — and who have specifically investigated the US and its covert war in Yemen — have increasingly come under attack by both Yemen's government and by Washington.
The most notable intervention by the White House came in February 2011, when Barack Obama “expressed concern” to the Yemeni government about the pending early release of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a journalist who had collected evidence in 2009 from the site of an attack in al-Majalah. He'd reported that there were pieces of US Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs at the site, and accused the US of being responsible for the attack that left 55 people dead, including 21 children.
At the time, the Yemeni government maintained that it had carried out the attack alone. When Shaye continued to speak out about America’s involvement, he was beaten up and told to stop. When he ignored those demands, US-trained and -funded counter-terrorism troops stormed his house in August 2010; eventually, he was charged with aiding and abetting al Qaeda. (He had interviewed al Qaeda militants in the past.) After the conclusion of his trial — deemed illegal by several international human rights organizations — his claims about the al-Majalah bombings were confirmed by leaked diplomatic cables.
As a result of the media blackout, the impact of the wars on the civilian population in Yemen is only now being exposed.
When Shaye was finally released in 2013 after three years in solitary confinement — Obama's 2011 intervention had blocked his early release — the White House said it was “concerned and disappointed."
Last September, Baraa Shiban, a Yemen-based representative for the human rights organization Reprieve, was held under Section 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act at Gatwick Airport while on his way to speak about the use of US drones in Yemen. Four months later, Shiban received a death threat following his reporting from the site of an American drone strike that had killed a dozen civilians in a wedding convoy in central Yemen on December 12.
Under Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the media was prevented from accessing conflict zones in the north of the country during the six wars waged by the government against Shia Houthi fighters who were demanding autonomy. As a result, the impact of the wars on the civilian population is only now being exposed. Last week, VICE News revealed the use of US cluster bombs by the Saudi Royal Air force in bombing campaigns carried out in northern Yemen in 2009 and 2010.
It's clear that when journalists and activists have been prevented by the governments of Yemen and the US from covering conflicts in Yemen — or persecuted for challenging official versions of events — the goal of authorities has repeatedly been to conceal atrocities against civilians. As the Yemeni military, backed by the US, continues both its fight against al Qaeda and its persecution of journalists, we must continue to ask: What are they trying to hide this time?
Follow Iona Craig on Twitter: @ionacraig
Photo via Flickr