Government bluster in Yemen

President Salih has now ordered the return of transmission equipment that the Yemeni authorities seized from the local offices of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya TV stations last week.

The equipment was seized on the grounds that it was "unauthorised", though nobody believed that was the real reason; the government was having a go at them because it didn't like their coverage of events in the south.

The president's decision came just a couple of days after his party, the General People's Congress, threatened to close down al-Jazeera's office in Sana'a altogether if it continued "to threaten Yemeni unity, instigate sedition, and ignite conflict and grudges". According to the Yemen Observer:

"A ruling party information source called on the channels’ executives to review their objectivity, credibility and commitment towards their professionalism. The source pointed out that if the channel went on pursuing the same approach following their protest addressing, Yemen might take steps to close the channel’s office, cancel the correspondents’ permit and ban al-Jazeera from working in Yemen in response to the desire of the Yemeni people who have voiced their protest and condemnation against al-Jazeera’s aligned attitude on the Yemeni issue."

Perhaps Salih thinks returning the equipment will make him look magnanimous, but it doesn't. Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are not as easily intimidated as the local newspapers. In the Middle East, they are heavyweight news organisations and it should have been obvious right from the start that seizing their equipment would cause a stink, as it has done

All it achieved was to make the government look vindictive at a time when Yemen desperately needs international support. It also gives the impression that in the midst of of all the dire problems that Yemen faces the government's eye is well and truly off the ball.

It was a similar story in the Palestinian territories last year when Mahmoud Abbas "suspended" al-Jazeera for reporting allegations made at a news conference about the death of Yasser Arafat.

What these leaders don't seem to grasp is that the days of "reliable", easily controlled and subservient Arab media are fast disappearing and that increasingly they will be required to explain and justify their actions.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 March 2010.