Tuning In To Suhail TV, Where Airing Yemen’s Revolution Is A Risky Affair

Months of protest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh have sparked a heated information war in Yemen. State media blames terrorist forces for driving the country toward chaos. But the opposition has a voice too: a television station called Suhail that&am

Yemen's Suhail TV gives voice to the opposition
Yemen's Suhail TV gives voice to the opposition

SANAA -- The TV station's quiet premises are located just off Change Square in the heart of Yemen's capital. As unfamiliar faces approach, a security guard comes out of a tent by the entrance and inquires about the nature of the visit. Ever since the facility was devastated by fire last May, Suhail Television has lived under the pressure of threats and the fear of renewed attacks. "Suhail is the voice of the Yemeni revolution," states Managing Director Muhammad Qissam.

It only took a few months for Suhail to establish itself as the best news channel in Yemen for coverage of the protest movement against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Suhail was launched three years ago in a gray television and radio landscape kept within firm boundaries by the state apparatus. The channel quickly broke ranks. "To speak about the hopes of the people as opposed to the wishes of the regime, that is our mission," says Qissam, also a former director of information for the national news channel.

In the absence of a law on private media, the channel cannot legally broadcast from within Yemen and is therefore headquartered in London. It is overseen by Hamdan Al-Ahmar, a member of a powerful tribal brotherhood led by Sadek Al-Ahmar, a declared opponent to the president who is also close to Al-Islah, the Islamist party.

In Yemen, Suhail manages to broadcast its programs live on the Internet thanks to a complex technical set-up by a German-based firm. Its monthly budget is estimated at $50,000 and is financed by a group of Yemeni businessmen who insist on discretion "in order to protect their investments."

On the frontline of an information battle

In popular Yemeni culture, Suhail is a character respected for his wisdom and praised for his knowledge. Building on this, the channel makes a point of showing what the official media hide or misrepresent. Indeed, an information battle has been raging since the beginnings of the Yemeni revolution in February.

Official media say that current events are nothing but the product of a dangerous plot fed by terrorist forces and religious obscurantism that have led the country into civil war and chaos. Media close to the opposition say that a popular and peaceful revolution is taking place, fed by a deep desire for political, economic and social change.

The channel is determined to broadcast the voice of the revolutionaries and produces interview after interview with people calling for a new Yemen. Every Friday at 9 p.m., Yemenis can enjoy "Against Reality." In 15 minutes, Muhammad Al-Roba tears apart the regime's allegations one by one. Backed by canned laughs, its 25-year-old anchor aims to "show reality from the ground only." On one occasion, he found the real parents of a victim of the security services. This allowed him to dismiss the claims of the public channel, which had no qualms fabricating relatives to pretend that the son, pronounced dead by the revolutionaries, was alive and well.

Thirty-five successful shows later, Muhammad Al-Roba lives like a recluse on the premises of Suhail. Colleagues pat his shoulder after shows, as much to encourage as congratulate. "My family and I are being threatened, I am now on the black list. I'm not even safe in Change Square." The young man feels himself to be in equal parts anchor, journalist and revolutionary. He says he is ready to pursue his mission beyond this first revolution, because afterwards, health, economic and cultural revolutions will have to follow.

Since the beginning of the protests, 44 employees from the TV station have been arrested by security forces. Technical equipment has been confiscated, and a cameraman was just released after 10 weeks in jail.

Even among government opponents, however, Suhail has its critics, who say the station occasionally crosses the fine line between advocacy and disinformation. "The station now works more for the political opposition than for the revolutionary movement, but media should show the true face of protest," according to Hussein Maram, a spokesperson for the Youth Movement.

For the past few weeks, the channel has decreased its coverage of events, instead favoring Turkish TV series or patriotic chants. "Yes, Suhail remains the voice of the revolution, but we will need media that can guide and educate the people and shape the public conscience. Suhail is not that medium," says Maram.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Suhail TV

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!