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
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.
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Photo - Suhail TV