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News and Search Websites Blocked in Yemen as Conflict Escalates

Categories: Yemen, Middle East & North Africa, Advocacy, Censorship, Free Expression, Media, War & Conflict
Homepage of Voice Yemen, a censored news site. Screen capture taken March 30, 2015. [1]

Homepage of Voice Yemen, a censored news site. Screen capture taken March 30, 2015.

Just days after Saudi Arabia began airstrikes [2] on Yemen in a regional effort to wrest control from Houthi rebels, Yemen's largest Internet service provider, Yemen Net, appears to have blocked several major news and media websites.

Houthis took control of state media in January, an act strongly condemned by the United Nations [3], this is one of the first documented instances of broad-based online censorship since the rebel group ousted the nation's president [4] and cabinet in January.

The local chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC) for Yemen posted calls on both their Facebook [5] and Twitter accounts asking followers to identify all websites that were inaccessible. Thus far, news sites including Mareb Press [6], Yemen Voice [1]Sahafa Net [7]Al-Sahwa Net [8] and Yemen Press [9] appear to have been blocked.

 Has your website or a website that you usually visit in Yemen been blocked? Please let us know by commenting on this post or via email on contact@isoc.ye

Many of the blocked sites carry content critical of Houthis. Yemen Press [9] and Mareb Press [6] have published multiple reports on Houthi-led violations of human rights. Others have no particular journalistic or political orientation. One example is Sahafa Net [14], a search engine which automatically fetches content from all major Yemeni websites. Until it was blocked last week, Sahafa Net was one of the most visited [15] websites in Yemen.
Blocked Websites in Yemen - Photo via @albaheth4

Blocked Websites in Yemen – Photo via @albaheth4

Prior to the blocking of this website, the Yemeni Ministry of Information issued an official statement [16] on March 25th indicating that legal action will be taken against media outlets that were “inciting tension”.
As soon as the news of the sites being blocked circulated online, several reactions were sent through Twitter. ISOC-Yemen co-founder Fahmi ElBaheth tweeted:

Fahmi also tweeted a resource on how to circumvent the block:

New blog post: Free tools and softwares that will help you circumvent the current website block in Yemen. http://t.co/uGkQ6bIj2G [24] #Yemen [11] 

ISOC-Yemen posted a statement [26] on their Facebook page regarding the acts of web censorship:

Statement by ISOC-Yemen on Recent Acts of Web Censorship

As an independent organization concerned with the right of users to access the Internet freely, the Internet Society Yemen Chapter (ISOC-Yemen) condemns and denounces the acts of censorship that have recently targeted several Yemeni websites. ISOC-Yemen urgently calls upon the Yemeni authorities involved to immediately unblock those websites and stresses that the current turmoil in Yemen should not be used as a pretext to tamper with accessing the Internet, which should remain open for all users to use without restrictions.

Issued in Sana'a on Friday, March 27, 2015
Internet Society Yemen Chapter (ISOC-Yemen)

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) condemned the act of censorship:

We reached out to Walid Al-Saqaf, president [30] of ISOC-Yemen and the founder of Yemen Portal [31] for more information. Al-Saqaf noted that the kind of blocking that authorities had used appeared suspiciously similar to what users faced [32] some years ago, between 2005 and 2011. He explained that the only difference is that now the banning includes websites critical of Houthis, in addition to websites critical of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the past, Saleh had blocked Houthi websites, yet now Houthis are blocking websites that criticize their alliance (which Al-Saqaf described as “unholy”) with Saleh.

He also added that since the Houthi forces took over the capital and occupied all government offices, they were able to control all vital communication establishments such as the Public Telecommunications Corporation which controls Yemen's main ISP and mobile operator, along with the Ministries of Communication and Information, which control landlines and state media. Thus, Houthis can now send directives to any official asking them to take actions against a media outlet. Al-Saqaf believes that this explains what he says is an extreme pro-Houthi bias in state media and the blocking of websites that include any critique of Houthi politics.

Regarding the official warning issued by the Ministry of Information, Al-Saqaf described the allegation as “inciting tension” as an easy pretense for limiting media freedom. He added that this was the same pretext under which the Aljazeera office was raided [33] and equipment confiscated in 2011.

Thus far, there have been no official statements issued by Yemen Net or the Ministries of Communication and Information regarding these acts of censorship.