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Yemen's forgotten conflict

Gouri Sharma
January 17, 2017

Atrocities are being committed against an innocent Yemeni population on a scale as serious as Syria and Iraq. But why doesn’t this story get as much media attention as those conflicts? Gouri Sharma reports.

Wie die Medien über den Krieg im Yemen berichten
Image: Murad Subay

When the UN children's rights organization UNICEF recently released a report stating that at least one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen, the expectation was that the news would be picked up by international news outlets. But barring a few exceptions, including Al Jazeera and DW, the news was not carried by much of the global media prominently, and some not at all.

In its report, the humanitarian organization estimated that more than 400,000 Yemeni children are at risk of starvation, and a further 2.2 million are in need of urgent care. How could it be that statistics this alarming, the result of a war involving regional superpowers with the backing of the US and UK, does not make headline news?

But people close to the story say this example is just a reflection of how the war in Yemen is covered by the global media.

Yemen and the western media

It's not that the conflict isn't covered, but when it is, news outlets tend to focus on the 'Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia versus the Shia Iran proxy war' narrative which overlooks the country's deepening humanitarian crisis.

Yemen, a country of 24 million people, has endured political strife for decades, but the situation worsened in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes with the aim of reinstating President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had been ousted by the Houthi rebel group. The Houthis are said to be backed by Saudi Arabia's regional political foe, Iran.

Since the bombing began, the UN estimates that more than 10,000 innocent people have been killed, 69 percent of the country is in need of humanitarian assistance, and three million people have been forced to flee their homes.

Wie die Medien über den Krieg im Yemen berichten
Although atrocities are committed on a daily basis, the conflict in Yemen seems to have dropped off the radarImage: Murad Subay

It's a complex political situation and those closest to it - the local journalists - have been forced to stop telling the story because of the dangers they've been facing. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press freedom watchdog, has recorded the deaths of at least six journalists caught in the crossfire since the start of the Saudi campaign. In its latest report, the Yemeni Journalist Syndicate said that more than 100 press violations were committed in the first six months of 2016, including 10 cases of attempted murder, 24 abductions and disappearances, and 12 cases of assaults on journalists and their offices. The situation for foreign journalists isn't any better, amid reports that those who get access can be subject to harassment and kidnappings.

Afrah Nasser, an independent Yemeni journalist who is based in Sweden, told DW: "When western news outlets cover Yemen it's often 'parachute journalism.' This is mainly because it's been hard to access Yemen and if you want to get in you have to get permission from the Saudis and the Houthis. For foreign journalists, it's become hell to enter or leave the country and a trip that used to take a few hours might now take days or even weeks."

But Iraq and Syria, which has ranked as the world's most dangerous place for journalists for at least two years in a row, are considered more difficult for journalists to report from than Yemen, yet both countries receive much more media coverage.

Syria, Iraq more 'newsworthy'

Yemeni activists and journalists point to one other major factor as to why the country is kept lower down on news agendas. Many of the people attempting to get to Europe are from Syria and Iraq so western news audiences are more affected by the what's happening in those countries than what's happening in Yemen - news editors may not deem the war newsworthy enough for their audiences.

"There isn't a direct or immediate threat coming to western countries from Yemen," Baraa Shiban, a London-based Yemeni human rights activist, tells DW. "There are no 'waves' of Yemeni refugees crossing the Mediterranean because it's too far and if there are refugees they remain few in numbers. This is also related to the threat western countries feel they are facing. Dealing with the 'Islamic State' (IS) tops the list for western politicians. IS has claimed attacks inside Europe and such attacks could happen again. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been busy hitting inside Yemen - recently killing soldiers in Aden - but it's limited in its ability to hit in Europe or the US."

Coverage could also be affected by who is involved in Yemen - and who isn't. "Any journalist or researcher who tries to dig deeper into the situation will see it's a local conflict, especially when we talk about specific places like Taiz, a city in the south which has been living under siege for the past year and a half by forces loyal to the former president, along with the Houthi rebels who come from the north. If you compare that with the situation in Aleppo, you have Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. That's a more interesting story with international and regional powers," says Shiban.

The biggest known player involved in Yemen is Saudi Arabia, who has been carrying out its military campaign with arms brought from the US and Britain. In December, the US announced it would be halting an arms deal worth $350 million to the Kingdom amid concerns of the coalition's indiscriminate bombing inside the country. But up until that point, President Obama had reportedly sold arms to the tune of $115 billion (107 billion euros) to Riyadh during his eight years in office - more than any US administration in history.

Wie die Medien über den Krieg im Yemen berichten
Many local observers accuse western media and western governments of double standards when it comes to YemenImage: Murad Subay

Double standards

The UK, meanwhile, approved 3.3 billion pounds (3.7 billion euros) worth of arms to the Kingdom in the first 12 months of its bombardment of Yemen. So it may not make for good business sense for the corporate media in the US and the British mainstream media to cover a war and the negative impact it's having on civilian life when their governments are making huge profits from it.

"If there is one country in the world that has the most gross double-standards, it's the UK. As long as the Saudis are their ally, they can overlook any of atrocities committed by their friend. Yemenis' blood means nothing when Saudi's cash is on the table and if you're a foreign journalist, some big media outlets won't buy your story because they don't want to annoy the Saudis," says Nasser.

But amidst all the reasoning, the facts remain. Atrocities are still being committed against innocent people on a daily basis and a humanitarian crisis is worsening as millions of people lack basic food and water supplies.

Murad Subay, an internationally renowned Yemeni street artist who has been using his art to call for peace, says that the situation in Syria should serve as a warning. "What happened in Syria is an example of where the world ignored the crisis until it turned into catastrophic war. We as citizens of the world have a responsibility to pressure countries to stop engaging in Yemen's war and to stop selling the arms that fuel it. People suffering in faraway places doesn't make the rest of the world immune from it. People everywhere should care because it is the right thing to do, because what's happening is wrong and inhumane."