Numerous Yemeni websites have been blocked recently by government-controlled ISPs. Among them is the popular YemenPortal (English version of the site here), Yemen’s first multi-source news crawler and search engine, which extracts headlines from news sites that are being blocked by the authorities. YemenPortal is inviting Yemeni internet users to access the website through a mirror they build at yemen.arabiaportal.net.
According to Reporters Without Borders access to at least seven other Yemeni websites have been blocked since October:
Access to YemenPortal from within Yemen was blocked two days after Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar and other government officials accused the press on 17 January of “jeopardising the country’s national interest” and “promoting incitement to secession.”
In May of the last year, Yemen’s Ministry of Telecommunications blocked access to two opposition news websites (www.al-shoura.net and www.aleshteraki.net) because they reported on the humanitarian situation and the fighting between the army and Shia rebels in the northern province of Sa’ada.
In this interview I speak with YemenPortal.net administrator Walid Al-Saqaf, who talks about the threats to the freedom of online expression in his country:
Sami: what kind of websites that are being blocked in Yemen and how do you explain the recent move by Yemeni government-controlled ISP's to ban your website and others?
Walid: I believe RSF made an excellent and thoughtful assessment in their release when they said the regime is suffering from a number of setbacks and challenges and decided to target the media instead of resolving them. Indeed, news websites have started to gain popularity and influence public opinion more than any other time in the past. YouTube videos of the ruthless attacks by security forces against protesters in Aden were posted online in YemenPortal.net and news, views and discussions on the separatist movement in the south along with the rebel war in the north have all had strong influences on the local press, which are increasingly picking up and rerunning stories and news from online media sources.
In other words, the government is fearful of new media's influence on public opinion and would like to suppress it, just as it did for broadcast and print media through monopoly and licensing restrictions.
Sami: Who is responsible for the block? Was it a governmental decision to bar access to YemenPortal?
Walid: It is definitely the government, but it is not clear to me which part of it. I heard from reliable sources that it is the national security apparatus that prompted this ban. This also came after harsh comments by the Minister of Information (as reported in the above RSF release). But it is 100% clear that the government was the one behind the ban.
Sami: How would you assess the general filtering situation in Yemen?
Walid: One word: ‘alarming’. This is because we are supposed to be in a democratic country where freedom of the press and expression are guaranteed in the constitution. This is a serious blow to all the pledges the regime gave to the public and the world. It is particularly alarming to see that the government is careless about complaints from international advocacy groups and organizations in the face of such oppression. The more the world criticizes the regime, the more it insists on it, noting that it is a ‘domestic’ issue that other nations or organizations should not interfere in. The censorship of pornographic websites has been tolerated by the society, but the government's resorting to censorship of websites merely for news and opinion marks a dangerous tendency towards dictatorship.
Sami: What has been the response of Yemeni Internet users to the the ban?
Walid: The response was positive to a very large extent. I received solidarity messages and hundreds of requests for membership. Readers are expecting the alternative domain (yemen.arabiaportal.net) to be blocked any time, so they would like to stay in touch and learn the second alternative domain that we will use if/when the first alternative domain is blocked.
There are however certain elements on the net that seem to support blocking websites. This is a minority and in my own opinion, they are either misguided or actually elements paid for by the authorities to give the impression that readers want this ban to ‘protect national interests’ and other rubbish.
What I would like to point out here is that the nature of YemenPortal.net as an umbrella and source of information on thousand+ sources makes banning it equivalent to banning information coming from all those sources. The search engine had already tracked more than 200,000 items and is growing rapidly. It has an English section as well and strives to cover the widest array of sources on Yemen as possible. It started in Yemen but was planned to extend to the Arab world through the arabiaportal.net project. But this ban held us back.
The aim is to liberate people from restrictions on what they can see and read. In a solidarity meeting with more than a couple dozen news website managers and workers in Sana'a on Jan 23, a decision was taken to fight this ban by applying new technologies and techniques to allow blocked websites to have a prominent location on the front page of YemenPortal.net and renew the website's DNS whenever one is blocked. This way we hope to neutralize the impact of censorship because it is virtually impossible for the government to keep on blocking each and every website that has a link to the dynamic DNS that will be created.