For a long time, the only people interested in Yemen were Joseph Kessel and Al-Qaida. After the revolution that brought down 32 years of dictatorship, the interest of the West quickly waned, abandoning the country to its difficult political transition.
It is an exhausted country, without a vision nor a hope of something better and crippled by depressing figures: there is a 23 percent inflation rate, 35 percent of people are homeless, 40 percent live under the poverty line, 60 percent are illiterate, the majority of whom are women and therefore reduced to mere objects. One family however, a brother and sister rather, aims to reverse this trend in Yemen. Their purpose? Freedom of expression. Their army? The media they have created.
They have the same round, warm faces, the same quick gestures and natural authority that warrants respect. In the TED microcosm (Technology, Entertainment and Design), they are heroes. Their soft voices and smiles however do not betray their every-day fight.
To understand their vision, we must go back to 1991, when their father, Abdulaziz al-Sakkaf, an economics professor at the University of Sana'a and the founder of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, launched the first English-speaking weekly newspaper in Yemen, at a time when the country was going through a complicated unification.
Independent, the Yemen Times carved a place for itself in between the government run media and those of the opposition parties. Published in English in a largely illiterate country, it was aimed at the expat community. In 1997, the Yemen Times launched its online edition and in 1999, Abdulaziz organised the first Yemeni conference on human rights, where he was ready to reveal numerous cases of human rights violations. However, the day of the inauguration, he died in a suspicious car crash at the age of 48.
Finding ways around censorship
His son took over managing the online version of the weekly whilst his daughter was finishing her computing studies in India. They both carried on their father's wishes: Walid improvised as editor-in-chief whilst Nadia became the journalist. Walid created the Yemenportal.net, a parallel operation, which would become an autonomous portal to document all dissident opinion. He has been arrested, the newspaper has been put under surveillance and the Yemenportal censored. At night, he tried to invent software to get around the blocking of his site. He has become obsessed by censorship, fascinated by technology.
In 2009, he gave the reins of the Yemen Times to his little sister and decided to take action: he put his Al-Kasir software on the internet for free, improving it constantly. It has been downloaded more than 80,000 times all over the world, from Tunis to Beijing. Walid is perfecting it, whilst finishing his PhD on censorship at Orebro University in Sweden, an attempt to examine the full picture: "There's no point in getting excited over censorship if the Internet doesn't exist. So, my plan is to bring it to the Yemenis. I'm part of a multi-party, pan-Arab council on the governance of the Internet. We are going to meet in Kuwait to speed up the process of Internet access in the region. If we don't do it, no-one will." Why the web? "Because it's the only means of catching up. It's about freedom of expression, but also entrepreneurship," he exclaims. It’s a means of the getting the country out of a rut.
A bridge between cultures
The al-Sakkafs are the new faces of Yemen. They are part of a youth, often educated abroad, who instead of staying away, where life would be easier, chose to come home to make a difference in their community. But, Walid is the man in the shadows, the brother of the passionate activist that dazzled TED audiences last year. Nadia, 35-years-old, a heavy weight in independent journalism took the stage by surprise. Funny yet subtle, she explained: "I want to break stereotypes, to tell the history of my people in the language that the whole world understands. People have to stop putting labels on us." Why do they do that? "My father would often say that we are the bridge between cultures, between our country and the rest of the world. We must also defend human rights and help those that need us. We were brought up like that, both of us." Who changes the destiny of a young girl? Her father. Standing ovation.
In Sana'a, she campaigns about almost everything: her status as a woman, tribal culture, the apathetic population, the restrained freedom of expression, foreign journalists who come to Yemen for barely 24 hours and go home with clichés, an ineffective infrastructure, electricity blackouts. She knows no fear, doesn’t even think about it. "The current government is obsessed by its own survival. It doesn't have the time to bother with us."
Bringing down the veil
This small yet feisty woman has welcoming eyes, yet a razor sharp pen and an iron fist. "Within the newspaper, I'm the boss. When I arrived, I made half of the editing staff redundant because they didn't want to work for a woman.” Her role reaches way beyond the articles on terrorism, drones and corruption. She denounces arranged marriages for young girls, rapes in schools. She hires a lot of women, showing them different aspects of journalism, teaching them to express their opinions in a country that deprives them of civil liberties. "Little by little, I'm making them take off their veils. You can't interview someone if your whole face is covered."
The Yemen Times, with its 50 employees, is a press group that publishes an Arab version of the newspaper on the Internet, organizes forums, edits a monthly magazine on personal development, owns printing presses and is going to launch a radio station next autumn. It's not easy sailing: the expats all fled last year and the distribution of the Yemen Times has fallen dramatically. But Nadia is hanging on.
Entrepreneur, editor-in-chief, and mother for the second time, she is now slowly veering towards politics. Nadia has a clear idea of the next step: "If I become Minister of Information, I will campaign for the independence and the freedom of the media. Our father handed it down to us, but we have carved our own path: for Walid, his passion is technology, for me it's human rights. We want to give our people the means to have a better life. We have to change the culture, the behavior and beliefs. We want dignity." A face, a vision, a hope and an appeal, of course: "Before, I was alone, isolated, vulnerable," confesses Walid. "All that has changed with the Arab Spring. We are the first wave of activists. Please, we can't let it fail."
Walid and Nadia al-Sakkaf: remember their names. With a bit of luck, one of them will be president one day.