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Cablegate: Bad to Worse for Yemeni Journalists: Press Court

VZCZCXYZ0005
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHYN #2014/01 3080932
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 040932Z NOV 09
FM AMEMBASSY SANAA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 3136

UNCLAS SANAA 002014

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

FOR NEA/PPD, NEA/ARP

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM KPAO YM
SUBJECT: BAD TO WORSE FOR YEMENI JOURNALISTS: PRESS COURT
ISSUES FIRST CONVICTION

REF: SANAA 2000

1. (U) SUMMARY. On October 31, Yemen's recently established
Special Press and Publications Court issued its first guilty
verdict. The court found Washington-based Yemeni-American
writer Munir al-Mawri and Yemeni independent journalist Samir
Jubran guilty of "the crime of criticizing the President of
the Republic" for a 2008 article published in Jubran's
newspaper, al-Masdar. Civil society organizations and other
independent journalists condemned the ruling, which Jubran is
now appealing. The ruling opens a new front in the Yemeni
government's assault on press freedom as it seeks to stifle
criticism of its handling of the nation's multiple crises.
END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) On October 31, Yemen's Special Press and Publication
Court sentenced in absentia Munir al-Mawri, a
Washington-based Yemeni-American writer and Sharq al-Awsat
correspondent, to two years in prison and banned him
"permanently" from practicing journalism in Yemen (reftel).
The court also ordered Samir Jubran, as the editor and
publisher of independent newspaper al-Masdar which featured
Mawri's article, to resign from his position and refrain from
practicing journalism for one year. (Note: Jubran is a good
Embassy contact who participated in a U.S. Department of
State International Visitor program in June 2009. End Note.)

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3. (U) The judge cited for violations an article by Mawri
entitled "Weapon of Mass Destruction," published in al-Masdar
on November 25, 2008. In the article, Mawri wrote that
Yemen's many problems -- a southern rebellion, a northern
insurgency, al-Qaeda infiltration -- "are only symptoms of a
serious disease, the source of all of Yemen's pains:
President Ali Abdullah Saleh ... (He) can be described
without exaggeration as a weapon of mass destruction ... His
irresponsible behavior may tear the country apart and cast
the Yemeni people's future into the dust." Mawri touched on
many sensitive subjects, including Saleh's supposed frail
health, his alleged stage-managing of the succession to
ensure that his son becomes president, and his responsibility
for the corruption endemic in the Yemeni government.

4. (U) The court found that Mawri's story violated Article
103 of Yemen's 1990 Press and Publications Law, which forbids
"anything that infringes upon the dignity of individuals and
individual freedom by the propagation of misinformation or
personal defamation."

5. (U) This conviction is the first issued by the Special
Press and Publications Court, which the Supreme Judicial
Council established in May 2009. Civil-society activists
condemned the creation of the court, seeing it as a mechanism
for government harassment and intimidation of journalists.
Justice Minister Ghazi al-Aghbari explained that the decision
to create a special court dedicated to press issues "came
within the framework of the reform agenda adopted by the
Ministry of Justice in order to deal with press-related cases
expeditiously." More than 150 pending cases that involved
journalists and media outlets were referred to the new court.
(Comment: President Saleh's alleged personal animosity
toward Mawri may have pushed Mawri's case to the top of the
court's crowded docket. End Comment.)

6. (U) Before the October 31 conviction, the court had issued
only one ruling, the July 20 acquittal of Sami Ghalib, editor
of the independent newspaper al-Nidaa and alumnus of the U.S.
Department of State's Edward R. Murrow journalist exchange
program. The Ministry of Religious Endowments had sued
Ghalib over articles published in 2006 alleging corruption in
the Ministry's hajj and umrah activities. However, the court
ruled that the articles in question "did not contain any
insults, and were grounded in the constitutional right to
criticize." That ruling placated some contacts' worries
about the new court, but Mawri and Jubran's convictions have
rekindled fears that it will be an instrument for harassing
journalists.

7. (U) The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate, political opposition
coalition Joint Meeting Parties, NGO Women Journalists
without Chains and other civil-society organizations issued
statements denouncing the ruling. Jubran told al-Jazeera on
October 31 that the article only criticized President Saleh's
leadership and did not constitute personal defamation. He
said, "Banning a journalist from writing for life? We were
not expecting such an odd ruling." Mawri spoke with BBC
Arabic from Washington on October 31, denying that the
article insulted President Saleh and saying, "This ruling is
an insult to the President and the Yemeni Republic and the
Yemeni people."

8. (SBU) COMMENT. The ruling against al-Masdar confirms the
fears that independent journalists have expressed to EmbOffs
since the May 2009 establishment of the press court. With
its first conviction, the court becomes another weapon in the
Yemeni government's arsenal as it continues its indefatigable
assault on the independent media. The court's inability to
distinguish political criticism from character defamation
sends a chilling message to would-be critics of President
Saleh, derailing what could be a serious national discussion
through the media of the direction of current government
policies. END COMMENT.
SECHE

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