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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.  

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Jude Kelly’s Diary: From train travel through 80s Russia to buses around Britain

Our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

It was strange on Friday, heading off from lunch with Misha Glenny, writer of McMafia, and landing in Moscow the same evening. Misha and I spent most of our time reminiscing about his father, the renowned translator and Russian expert Michael Glenny. He and I travelled right across Russia together in 1986 accompanied by the then science editor of Pravda Vladimir Gubarev, the first journalist to set foot in Chernobyl. So great was Gubarev’s horror at what he had uncovered that he exiled himself to his dacha for months and wrote his first play, Sarcophagus, set in Hospital No 1, where all the patients, scientists, firemen, engineers and building contractors reveal to each other the massive corruption and moral culpability that led to the devastating event and their own inevitable deaths.

It was early glasnost days and all could be said, nothing was censored. The play caused shock waves right across the Soviet system and I’d been asked to direct it by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I stood in the office of the literary department in Stratford open-mouthed as Michael Glenny’s vivid translation came rolling off the fax machine, revealing the unbearable mix of human stupidity and venal desire that placed the world in such danger.

This led to our train journeys, criss-crossing the snowy landscape, to research the piece, as Michael and Vladimir gave me a crash course in Russian history while smuggling vodka into railway carriages to cope with that short-lived and doomed alcohol ban that was one initiative of perestroika. I returned to direct the play, which I’m proud to say was nominated for an Olivier award. But one thing I think we’ve all learned, and as Misha illustrated over lunch, is that our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now
as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

Thawing relations

I was in Russia by invitation of the British Council, giving speeches to artists and cultural leaders about the power of culture to help us build the necessary shared understandings and beliefs. Earnest conversations but also jokes, enthusiasm, great food and no shortage of vodka reinforces that people are very different from political states.

I hate cold weather, but I went almost straight from Russia to Ottawa. Minus ten degrees. Then Banff – minus 15! The trip was partly driven by conversations with Canadian artists about climate change. The global Earth Summit happens in 2020: governments are gathering to review environmental policy and I’d been approached to curate an international festival bringing together many of the extraordinary artists and scientists working in the field. We’d met many of them during our investigation last year of the Nordic regions for Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters festival. Canada has equally powerful thinkers: these conversations are no longer of “fringe” interest. As part of my research, in August I’ll travel to the Arctic region to meet up with artists there. More cold! Brrr!

Coaching by coach

Yesterday, I was in my hometown of Liverpool for a meeting about a new British charity that Richard Collier-Keywood and I have co-founded called Drivers for Change. Me, arts; him, business. It’s directly inspired by an Indian charity, Jagriti Yatra, that takes 400 18- to 26-year-olds on a train journey around their own country looking at social enterprise projects and giving them the knowledge and skills to return to their own communities and make change happen.

I went for several years, supporting these enthusiastic millennials. But although I loved seeing what was being done in Bangalore or Thilonia, I was struck by the knowledge that back home in Sunderland, Port Talbot or Weston-super-Mare there are brilliant examples of change to learn from, and huge problems that need innovative approaches and courage to tackle. This June, we’re inviting 100 young recruits (80 British and 20 from overseas) from all backgrounds to travel through the UK, stopping in nine towns and cities to learn from and inspire others. It launches in Liverpool on 22 June during the International Business Festival, and although it’s buses and not a romantic locomotive, we have high hopes that it will produce a cohort whose actions and energy will make a real difference.

Watching the love tug

We live beside the canal in Shoreditch, east London, and have noticed a major escalation in epic silliness. At least once a week through December and January, groups of people immersed in hot water in a large plastic blow-up bath – known as the “Love Tug” – have floated past, drinking champagne. As I write, with the faux chimney of the tug steaming away and bursts of immodest laughter tinkling across the water, one group has just drifted under our windows. Wearing nautical hats and little else, many look like stag or hen dos. What a barmy start to married life.

Goodbye Southbank, hello world

Women of the World Festival (WOW) is in Kathmandu this weekend for its second year there – the youngest, poorest democracy with some of the most powerful women and girl campaigners you could ever meet. I have just announced that after 12 years, I’ll be leaving the Southbank Centre to build WOW into a wider global movement. Over eight years we’ve developed these festivals, which speak with candour about every aspect of women’s lives in 30 places, over five continents. It’s proved a hugely compelling project for me to devote more time to.

This month’s celebrations of women’s achievements in getting voting rights was gratifying but WOW aims to celebrate girls and women all year round. Celebration creates optimism, and optimism gives us the stamina to face up to the tough stuff and keep going. You have to build fun into life wherever possible… For me, it’s essential. 

WOW Women of the World festival will be held at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 7-11 March

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist