The Yemen Policy Centre (YPC) held a webinar on 5 August, entitled, “Reclaiming the Narrative: The Problematic Presentation of Yemen in Western Media Confirmation”.
The first speaker was Iona Craig, an award-winning British-Irish freelance journalist who has worked extensively in Yemen and the Arabian peninsula.
Craig opened by saying that the problem is long-standing and involves media consumption, as well as production, and it is not just a Yemen problem, but goes back at least to the reductive coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s—caused by the Communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, not that anyone would have known that, watching the “Live Aid”.
There have been improvements, Craig points out. It is true that television news still only give stories a couple of minutes and this then gets compressed for social media, and print media still struggles to give proper space to things. But even in print media, where journalists wrote 300-word news bulletins a few decades ago, now they write about 1,200, and with online journalism there is much more in-depth reporting.
Still, there are serious structural problems for Western journalism in handling Yemen: journalists do not focus on the country constantly but “dip in and out” and there is a heavy reliance on English speakers, always minimal in Yemen and now essentially absent.
In “defence” of journalists, says Craig, there is a very serious “access problem”, in two respects. Firstly, it is physically difficult to get to Yemen and with the collapse of security it is immensely risky to go there, deterring coverage, and encouraging reliance on, for example, footage taken by aid agencies, meaning that the narratives around Yemen tend to focus on the humanitarian dimension, strictly speaking, without acknowledging the politics that have created this humanitarian disaster. The second issue, especially in the northern areas controlled by Iran’s Ansarallah or Houthis, is that the repressive nature of the governing authorities means that access to reliable information is very difficult even once journalists get into the country.
Craig concludes that some might argue that it is better not to cover the Yemen conflict at all than to cover it badly, but the impulse to give voice to the voiceless is deeply ingrained in the Western media. To improve the situation, it would be better for this intention to be better enacted: to help Yemenis tell their stories, rather than telling their stories for them.
Nadwa Al-Dawsari spoke next, a researcher with twenty years of field experience in Yemen, covering all aspects from the tribes and civil society to local governance and the security sector. She is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Al-Dawsari says that this is a subject that she is passionate about because Westerners have dominated the discourse “and it did affect the conflict”, emboldening the Houthis and strengthening them over the last few years. “It justified the Houthis violence” and enabled their aggression, especially after the Stockholm Agreement, which stopped the Houthis being deprived of the port city of Hudayda. Stockholm was essentially the “Western narrative materialising as a tool that the Houthis used”, says Al-Dawsari.
The “peace narrative” about Yemen has been dominated by Westerners, says Al-Dawsari, and it has skewed everything, meaning outside analysts coming to the Yemen conflict end up viewing it “through the lens of the Saudi intervention, which is not how most Yemenis see the conflict”. The “humanitarian narrative” has been “exploited and weaponised” by the Houthis, Al-Dawsari notes, and what’s worse is that this has infected the peace process, with United Nations officials giving voice, publicly and privately, to these misperceptions about the war.
Al-Dawsari points to three important narratives that have dominated—and distorted—Western media coverage:
- That the war started in 2015, when the Arab Coalition intervened to reverse the Houthi coup against the transition process. A related narrative was that the Houthis were, rather than the aggressors, a “rag-tag group of freedom fighters” and an “aggrieved religious minority”, when in fact they are “a radical religious group” no different from Al-Qaeda or ISIS.
- Houthis marched on Sanaa against corruption—despite the group being “more corrupt than any force that has ever gained power in Yemen”.
- That any links between the Houthis and Iran were minimal and reactive to the Arab Coalition intervention , when the Houthis are a long-term Iranian project.
Al-Dawsari concluded that this situation has been marginally improved recently, mostly by the increasing prominence of a number of young Yemenis in the analytical community and in the Western media.
The third speaker was Mariam al-Dhubhani, an award-winning Yemeni-Russian journalist, filmmaker, and curator. Producing her first film during the Arab spring in Yemen, she co-founded a media production and since then her films have been screened globally in festivals such as Carthage, Interfilm, and Oaxaca.
Al-Dhubhani recalled an experience of being lectured by a filmmaker on the “errors” in the way she was presenting Yemen, and how upsetting it was for such a thing to be done by somebody who had not only never been to Yemen, but couldn’t find it on a map. Yemen is a country of thirty million people, so to portray it as if they are of “one colour or one idea” is wrong. Al-Dhubhani said she hopes in future films will have more space for Yemen as it is, rather than as others imagine it is.
The final speaker was Yousef Assabahi, a Yemeni-American writer and director whose first short film, A Patriot Act, won the Best Student Film award at the Nevada International Film Festival. His second film, Landmined, was screened in multiple countries.
Assabahi says that Yemeni filmmaking has been held back by the imposition of stereotyped moulds: because of the situation in Yemen, film schools cannot exist there, so they have to attend schools outside, and those schools teach and reward visions of suffering. Yemenis imbibe this as the “proper” way to present Yemen, and since NGOs and others control money supplies, and want this footage for their campaigns, it then “corrupts” Yemeni artists in Yemen, who follow the money, which is available for this one-dimensional presentation. Assabahi says this is among the main problems at present.
In the question-and-answer period, Craig said that Western media editors are allergic to “complexity” and recalls having a “two-hour fight” with an editor over using the word “Zaydi” to describe the Houthis; the editor felt that “Shi’a” was sufficient. The media coverage prioritises the Arab Coalition airstrikes, especially if it can be tied to Western weapons supplies, and the humanitarian situation, particularly since it could be designated a famine, which tends to involve a completely decontextualised focus on the suffering, often visualised by “showing pictures of emaciated [people], usually children”.
“Yemen is irrelevant to Yemeni media coverage”, Al-Dawsari said bluntly. The press is interested in Yemen to the extent they can use it as a canvas for a story about their own countries. Portraying Yemenis simply as victims is misleading in general and just wrong when wrongly applied to a group like the Houthis, Al-Dawsari said: it meant the entire narrative of the war was backwards—it presented the Saudi-led intervention as the beginning of the war, rather than an outcome of Iran’s war in Yemen.
Al-Dhubhani spoke about the Oscar-nominated film, Hunger Ward, which was “extremely disturbing”, showing three children dying of famine in Yemen. Al-Dhubhani was unable to watch the whole film because of its content, and the film itself became a focal point of Yemeni complaints about the coverage of their country, because Yemenis were essentially props for a story the director wanted to tell and the use of false information—on the timing of the famine, for example—ended up feeding into the disinformation of the Houthis, making a film that was supposedly to bring attention to the humanitarian plight inherently politically partisan.
Assabahi explains that he has found a workaround to the issues with foreign grants for filmmaking, and that is to finance his own at the present time, in the hope that the returns will allow the funding of “truly Yemeni” products down the road. Assabahi notes that this is an issue for Yemenis, too, who had to be convinced that there is a need to tell stories about things other than misery, whether it’s child marriage or hunger; despite the war, life does go on, and there should be some balance in the presentation to reflect this.