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The Yemeni Television Scene: A Critical Examination of its Role and Function

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

Ever since the small screen appeared in the world, all eyes were drawn to it as a sort of a primitive ritual that can only be compared to humans gazing at the moon. Who could have imagined that more than half the world’s population’s eyes would be glued to the screen to watch a single event at the same time, as was the case with the World Cup qualifiers. Or that the number of simultaneous viewers of the Super Bowl would reach 150 million, exceeding the number of spectators of any other political event whose effects might extend to every home and affect every stomach, such as war, for example, or elections.

For Yemenis, the launch of television broadcasting had visual implications for the presence of the state it its ability to communicate with its citizens, and to create a propaganda machine with a hugely influential benefit to the regime. Television occupies a crucial position as an information source in the lives of Yemenis, as more than 80 per cent of people consider television as the primary source of news information.[1]

This article provides a reading of the Yemeni television scene, since television channels go beyond the concept of a mere transmission tool to play an important active role in Yemeni political, social and cultural lives.

From state television to non-state television

The Yemeni visual media scene has expanded with an unprecedented number of satellite television channels in the last ten years, bringing the number to nearly 30 government-owned and private television channels. Initially, the increase in the number of channels was very slow since the first television channel in Aden in 1964; it wasn’t until 1975 that there was a channel in Sana’a. The channels bore the names of the two capitals, which turned into the first and second channels after unification in 1990.

After that, satellite television broadcasting began in the mid-1990s, when the state visual media broadcast four satellite channels. It was not until the early 2000s that private channels entered the broadcasting space with Al-Saeeda (2007) and Suhail TV (2009).

2011 presented a significant transformation phase in the Yemeni media scene in general and the visual media scene in particular. The era of government media hegemony ended, and the doors opened wide for opposition media. Private Yemeni channels established their headquarters in Yemen. However, the outbreak of war at the end of 2014 prompted the channels to flee outside Yemen, leading to other government and private satellite channels launching in many Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Artwork by Linah Alamoudi

An incentivized media environment

Currently, the element regulating these transformations is the war – a war that followed a stalled transition process after a youth revolution demanding reform and change occurred. The war, with its local actors and regional interveners, resulted in severe polarization and political alignment.

Visual media in Yemen can generally be summarized according to the conflict’s impacts, as a number of channels are broadcast from areas controlled by the Houthis; these are monochrome channels with a standardized message. There is no longer room for opposition or pluralism. Meanwhile, the remaining channels have fragmented and have had to broadcast from different regional capitals, including the government channels that broadcast from Saudi Arabia.[2] Indeed, these war years are the worst for journalism in Yemen, which has experienced severe blows with increased attacks on and killings of journalists and workers in the press.

That is why the outputs of visual media – our focus here – express a multi-layered crisis.

A political crisis: Reflected in incitement speeches, the transmission of hate speech, the destruction of the idea of national unity, and demolition of the concept of the state and the system, instead of pushing for a change in the ruling authority.

An identity crisis: Embodied in the media through the names of regional channels (channels with governorates’ or historical regions’ names, such as Hadhramaut, Al-Mahrah, Aden and Azal), or with historical connotations (Balqees, Azal, Suhail, Saeed and Saba), or religious and sectarian (Al-Iman, Rushd and Al-Masirah), in addition to programs with content that reflects an identity crisis. It should be remembered here that an entire channel has called itself the identity channel (Qanat Al Hawiyya) in an attempt to monopolize identity and re-represent it, or at least to evade accusations of erasing identity.

Crisis of norms and standards: Evident in the absence of professional, legal and constitutional standards and the lack of a professional code of conduct.

How was this situation reflected in the role and function of these channels?

By role, we mean the totality of relationships produced by television channels through the positions these channels chose to occupy; that is, the stance they claimed in the public space. By function, we mean the objectives that a given channel seeks through its programs, the material it provides, and how it conveys its messages. our aim is not to contextualize these materials in the general framework that emerges through Yemeni visual media production. In other words, our aim is to examine the work policy which are determined partially by geopolitical circumstances.

We stress the importance of some of the main features of the Yemeni visual media scene.

Firstly, government media is no longer government media only. Rather, it has been affected by the consequences of the exile of its cadres; even if it had acquired new technical equipment, it is outside its territory, physically and morally. For example, the Yemeni satellite channel operates from Riyadh, with less than 4 per cent of the number of workers it previously had in Sana’a in 2014.[3]

Secondly, some channels are still following its lead and are proceeding with great caution, maintaining their cultural and entertainment editorial direction since establishment before or during the war; including Al-Saeeda TV, which is an exception as it is a private channel that broadcasts from Sana’a.

Thirdly, the fragmentation of the political climate in Yemen has inevitably led to the fragmentation of the media scene and the creation of channels that disregard market needs, public demand, and the media vacuum that needs to be filled. This leads us to assume that the media business, despite benefiting from major technical advancement in equipment as well as the utilization of technological data, takes shape regardless of utility, but mainly following propaganda mechanisms.

Finally, it is true that these channels operate with a young staff. However, this situation has resulted in a discontinuity between new and former employees at the expense of journalism veterans’ experience, and the coherence of their positions which take into account many factors.

Politics that seeks to demolish politics

Observations from the Studies and  Economic Media Center indicate the dominance of political content on Yemeni visual media over other content. And this engagement in politics, in our opinion, is justified by the prevailing conditions. However, visual media became involved in politics by demolishing politics, through deepening and increasing ​​polarization between local and regional contexts.

Hence, we are seeing investment projects in the political propagandist sense, not the commercial sense, as the transition from state television to non-state television has taken place with funding sources outside the terms of the business of liberal media, as related to the market, advertisements and profit.

As such, it is as if media work has turned into bellows that create over-blown, decorated, but fragile glassware. Since these channels are subject to polarizing funding, related to the high regional, political and economic stakes, there has been a departure from visual media’s function in delivering news in pictures to the function of representation: representation of trends, local and regional politics, sectarian trends, regional trends; representation of parties, not of society, representation of forces rather than actors; representing private interests, not public interest; representing people, not an audience.

Artwork by Linah Alamoudi

From the channel as an establishment to the ‘one person channel’

It is true that a channel is a group of individuals who operate in an organization according to a specific structural framework, but it is run by individuals with personal, intellectual, social and spiritual views, material and moral constraints, biases, motives, intersecting interests, weaknesses and life demands. The latter is what motivates the Yemeni diaspora, along with the broad lack of security, including job security. This drives individuals to accept jobs and take on roles that they would not have accepted if they were given different opportunities.

But on the structural level, we find that the channel, although it has legally acquired a legal personality, represents the interests of the owner or the main funder, and for this we are facing the person-channel, not the channel as an establishment.

These channels have not been able to institutionalize themselves according to governance mechanisms. They do not have clear wage structures and career hierarchies that give their workers a recognized career path that can potentially be exported outside of the channel.

But above all, because the channels are on foreign lands and they receive funds from ambiguous sources, makes them hostages to the mood of the host country and the fluctuations of its foreign policy. Also, they are dependent on the financier, their conditions, the fluctuations of their foreign policy or their commercial ambitions, and their relationship with the authorities. This is reflected in the role and function and makes talk about unifying concepts such as sovereignty or patriotism an irrelevant conversation if not outright bickering.

And the channels’ presence abroad translates into job insecurity for the workers. They work in unstable conditions due to the ambiguity of their status as immigrants, and some will be unable to declare the nature of their jobs because they work illegally in the host country, even if the matter is overlooked by the local authorities. This is very common for channels outside Yemen.

This situation makes workers more vulnerable, less independent, and unable to form an independent opinion, and thus, does not provide an appropriate news media work environment. Employees work in a serfdom-like conditions, where wages are insufficient and there is no room for thinking outside the framework, and workers have to adopt the positions of the channel’s owner, and not the editorial line of a media institution.

Low-cost media

The legal and geopolitical factors within which channels are created do not allow them to employ larger teams and expand the space for news, reporting and programs. Therefore, these channels focus on debate shows and panel discussions instead of investigative journalism and the search for information. Although talk shows have the potential to add value to a discussion, in the work environment just described, they are done without proper preparation.

This leaves television work underdeveloped: there are few films or documentaries, and those available are superficial, relying on a single story or limited references; programs lack visual enhancement such as maps, scene reenactments and graphics; and there are limited cultural programs, limited capacity, and low-cost programs resulting in a cheap service. This also enhances the TV presenter’s role at the expense of the expert’s role, the surface at the expense of depth, the journalist of generalities and not the specialist. In addition, limited preparation time leads to repeat guests, and limited budgets leads to the same few experts.

Therefore, for both structural and technical reasons, and that they are not in the country, means channels have not been able to transform into content creators that can share material on social media. On the contrary, they depend – and sometimes too much – on social media to create their content.[4]

Propaganda machines

An absence of an objective requirement for media work distorts its nature and makes media institutions ideological vessels, turning television channels into propaganda machines. Propaganda relies on the common ground of historical and political doubt and mythology, on presenting ideas that are believable regardless of their truth. In the example of Yemen: the established hostility to Saudi Arabia; the sectarian separation; the inevitable geographical influence on Yemenis’ choices, creating a difference between the inhabitants of the north and others; or Yemenis not actually being ‘Yemeni’ according to distorted historical facts.

Television channels resort to the excessive use of high-quality images to remove skepticism about news content. They tend to rely on glorifying (artistic) trivialities as a form of propaganda, killing satire as an art form by relying on slapstick, shouting, insults and slander. And this association of humor and comedy with immaturity leads to mediocrity. They also present news in a condemnatory tone, rather than delivering information. Yemeni media has shifted away from the monotonous rhetoric of the authority/regime to the rhetoric of the regime’s enemies, with its aggressive discourse. Furthermore, they provide news of an intelligence nature without clarifying information sources and therefore disregarding journalism ethics.

The war context has meant television channels have become involved politically and show visual propaganda, fully engaging with regional polarization. This led to a media role outside of media and an inclination towards making political stars, to the adoption of positions and the transformation of the news industry into dogmatic execution instead of a service delivery with news and analysis, and to a focus on priorities created in the newsrooms rather than those that should come from public opinion and the course of public life.[5]

Television news channels create un-essential media priorities and less important issues and provide bursts of repetitive news with occasional minor additions around one point, which divert people’s attention from fundamental issues These known distraction strategies are common. Viewers are bombarded with successive newscasts and digests, similar to ad campaigns that suggest to the consumer/recipient unconscious messages that obstruct developing critical thinking.

On the ground, some television channels have been involved in field coverage on the battlefronts, with a fighting spirit that turned the journalist into a war correspondent without  safety measures and life guarantees, which caused an increase in the number of victims on the one hand (45 journalists killed since the beginning of the war), as well as resulting in the loss of the only wage-earner in the case of some families, without financial and legal rights as per labor laws.[6]

Artwork by Linah Alamoudi

Conclusion

Television channels function in a capitalist economic space, but without the conditions of capitalism: without founders or shareholders, along with the absence of financial transparency and the absence of payment structure.

Harsh working conditions under which workers are left to the whims of the ‘manager’ and are forced to work in a restrictive environment that lacks space for freedom of thought or tolerance of differing opinions. That is why news comes in the form of political campaigns, and not according to a coherent editorial policy.

Disruptions to the role and function of media channels prevented them from determining their identity, making them move between the news channel model and the interactive entertainment channel, in an attempt to attract viewers through awards/prize shows.

The shift of media/television from its original purpose towards political propaganda is the antithesis of freedom of expression as a condition of democracy, because propaganda is a flagrant threat to democracy.

 


[1] Yemen Polling Center, 2012.

[2] Studies and Economic Media Center – SEMC, 2017.

[3] This percentage raises the question of why government channels are overstaffed or suggests that a comparison is in order between the channel’s performance before and after.

[4] Mohammad Ar Rajwi, Al Jazeera Media Institute, 28 April 2020.

[5] Mohammad Ali Mahroos, an investigation published in Al Mushahid website, 22 November 2020.

[6] Cf. Bashir Adh Dharii, Al Jazeera Media Institute, 12 November 2020.

 

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Mustafa Naji

A researcher and former Yemeni diplomat based in France.

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