Yemen in Limbo: The Case of Saada Radio
By: Atiaf Alwazir
Published Saturday, July 14, 2012
The apportionment of power and control between the central state and the influential actors in the various parts of Yemen has always been ambiguous. Since the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the fragile relationships are even harder to define.
Saada, Yemen - In jeans and a casual T-shirt, 30 year-old Ahmed al-Mokhtafy, the de facto head of Saada Radio in the war-torn region bordering Saudi Arabia, complained vehemently about government negligence.
“We are not from a different planet, neither are we foreigners. We are Yemenis,” he said, while sitting in his office with a photo of President Hadi proudly displayed.
Saada Radio was created in 2007 under the Ministry of Information’s General Corporation for Television and Radio. It broadcast various programs including two daily news shows, political and religious talk shows and awareness raising programs dedicated to health and education. They were, however, barred from covering the wars that devastated the region and resulted in thousands of deaths including women and children, and more than 340,000 people being displaced, many of whom remain in displacement today.
The radio broadcast with government funding until March 2011. At this time employees were split on whether to broadcast information related to the revolution that began mid January 2011, and hence be viewed as anti-government, or to maintain the government’s standard line.
Some employees began to transmit information about the uprising, which was taking place at the same time as control of the area being taken over by the Houthi movement.
While the radio station is still a government entity, the salaries of employees who aired information about the revolution were cut. They have not been officially fired, nor given any explanation as to the salary freeze.
The others who did not engage in airing revolutionary programs left the office citing concern over the Houthi control of the area. While they do not even work in the office, to date they continue to receive their salaries.
Since the majority of Saada Radio employees were not being paid their full salaries, and it has been six months since they received any money at all, the employees have been on strike since June 2 – demanding payment of wages, the return of radio property confiscated by previous employees, and the formalization of the new director in his post.
The strike comes after months of negotiations with the new transitional government, which has given them mixed signals regarding the issues.
Two Versions of One Story
The employees are demanding an investigation into the reasons behind the salary cuts and accuse the authorities of stopping their income because of their “disloyalty” to the government.
The other employees who remain loyal to the government lay the blame on the Houthi control of the radio and not on the revolutionary stance of some of the employees.
“It is natural that the government stopped funding the radio because they no longer have any relationship with it after the employees were kicked out and replaced by others” said Mohammed Azzan, official head of the radio.
Azzan accused the Houthis of storming into the radio, removing the employees and replacing them with their followers. Azzan is still receiving his salary as official head of the radio even though he left the office in March 2011. He said he will not work in the office until “Saada returns to its natural environment, and official actors take control over the governorate.”
According to station employees, a group of Houthis entered the Saada radio building – after they had taken control of the region – to negotiate with the employees and put an end to their “provocative programs” against the Houthis which they were known for during the six rounds of on and off fighting continued, with the last war ending in 2009.
The employees said that the Houthis reassured them that they would not intervene in their broadcasting but requested that they refrain from using government propaganda against them.
“Despite the fact that we had not previously mentioned the civilian casualties of the war, the Houthis did not seek revenge against us when they came to power” said Mokhtafy – who has been working in the radio since its inception – with a surprised smile.
He feels that the margins of freedom have expanded and there are no more red lines, but cultural sensitivity should be respected.
When asked about whether an unofficial ban against music in public spaces imposed by the Houthis is being enforced in Saada, and whether this affects the radio, he responded, “we still broadcast some music like national or classic music, but the society is conservative. So, we try to not offend anyone” he said showing aspects of self-censorship. “Religious music is the solution,” he added.
Local Power Versus State Control
Since the Houthis took control over Saada recently, many citizens do not know what to expect. Which entity will dictate the laws of the region? The local authorities or the central government? Or both?
This ambiguous relationship is making some citizens worry about their current reality. “We don’t know what to expect, it’s like dealing with a new government,” said a teenage girl in the old city. “It’s better to stay quiet until we know what they want,” she added, expressing uncertainty about the future.
Saada Radio’s dilemma of what can and can not be aired on radio exemplifies the new question of who is in charge. The uncertain relationship between state actors, the Houthis and the citizens is visible in the governorate of Saada.
Many local sources report on the Houthis “secessionist” desire, and their complete detachment from the central government. Yet, on May 22, Yemen’s unity day, celebratory banners with the Yemeni flag filled the main streets of Saada city. President Hadi’s photos also decorate the government institutions next to the Houthi slogan plastered on the same streets.
The central authorities are still involved in Saada, despite the fact that the Houthis appointed a new governor, and took charge of security measures in the region. Most state employees, including the governor, teachers, soldiers and security forces are paid by the government and not by the Houthis.
The tug of war over power of the state versus local actors will take years to formalize. Like the fate of Saada Radio, the Houthis and the central government are still negotiating over the level of decentralization that has long been promised in Yemen but never implemented.