Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Almost half a million donors have contributed to President Barack Obama's campaign, according to a "thank you" sent from his official Twitter feed. It has not been confirmed whether he has reached the goal of raising $60m by the end of the second quarter (which ended on 30 June). Democrats claim they will easily hit this target.

Barack Obama's donors

2. In the Republican camp, speculation about donations is rife, although results won't be public until 15 July. Mitt Romney's campaign is expected to have raised around $20m in the quarter, less than the £30-40m some had forecast. However, he is still likely to far outpace everyone else in the Republican presidential field.

Jon Huntsman -- who has been an official candidate for just nine days -- is the first to leak his figures, which are reportedly around $4.1m. However, according to ABC, "less than half" came from Huntsman himself, meaning that he actually raised around $2m. Ron Paul announced on his Facebook page that he's raised $4.5m -- double the amount he raised at this point in the last election cycle.

Details about the others are less forthcoming, although Michele Bachmann is expected to have had a good quarter following all the publicity she has received in recent weeks.

Mitt Romney

3. Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, appeared to back-pedal from his claims that Obama has made the recession worse. In early June, he said that Obama "didn't create the recession, but he made it worse and longer." He said the same thing on Monday.

However, when an NBC producer asked him yesterday to explain why Obama's policies hurt the economy, he said "I didn't say that things are worse", adding:

What I said was that [the] economy hasn't turned around, that you've got 20 million Americans out of work, or seriously unemployed; housing values still going down. You have a crisis of foreclosures in this country. The economy, by the way, if you think the economy is great and going well, be my guest. But the president of the United States, when he put in place his stimulus plan and borrowed $787 billion, said he would hold unemployment below 8% -- and 8% seemed like an awfully high number. It hasn't been below 8% since. That's failure. We're over 9% unemployment. That's failure. He set the bogie himself at 8% ,which strikes me as a very high number and we're still above that three years later.

4. Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan congressman, will file paperwork to enter the 2012 presidential race today. The little known Republican spent four days in Iowa this week, and reportedly left "feeling positive". The former Iowa House Speaker, Chris Rants, will serve as his senior adviser in the state, although he previously endorsed Romney. Despite McCotter's low profile amongst Republicans across the country, Politico notes that he is popular with the conservative media crowd. The commentator Andrew Breitbart told the publication that McCotter was "blunt, sarcastic, pop-culture-savvy, constitutionally sound and an authentic voice."

Not sure who he is? Here is a vintage video of him explaining "How to speak Democrat" in 2008. Suffice to say comic timing isn't his forte.

 

5. Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, will leave his job in the autumn if economic conditions improve and the debt ceiling debate is resolved, according to a senior administration official. The news has been reported by several US media outlets, including Bloomberg.

While it is too early to say whether he will definitely depart (and indeed, there are too many caveats to be sure), it would be a significant loss. Geithner is the last member of Obama's original economic team still with the administration. Possible replacements are already being touted, with the list said to include Erskine Bowles, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and Roger Altman, a top investment banker and former deputy Treasury secretary.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.