SAQQAF, Abd al-Aziz

Dr Abd al-Aziz al-Saqqaf (1952-1999)

Abd al-Aziz M-Saqqaf was a courageous warrior whose weapons were paper, ink and computers. As editor and publisher of the Yemen Times, he insisted on taking the country’s ostensibly liberal press law at its word — and regularly suffered the consequences.

Dr Saqqaf, a lecturer in economics at Sana’a University, launched his paper in 1991 during the political spring that followed Yemen’s unification and first steps towards democracy At the time it was just one among several dozen new titles thrust optimistically upon a bemused — and 60 per cent illiterate — Yemeni public. Many of the new papers disappeared as suddenly as they arrived and, on any sensible reckoning, the Yemen Times should have been among the first to bit the rocks. Not only was it inaccessible to the illiterate, but to most of the literate Yemenis, too. It was published entirely in English, apart from the occasional page in French.

This, as it turned out, was Saqqaf’s master stroke. His paper was able to get away with saying things that others could not, because there was no danger that it would inflame the masses. But the authorities did become apprehensive when they realised that it was being read by virtually every foreign diplomat and businessman in Yemen. It also began to attract advertising from prosperous western companies.

In those early days he ran the paper from a cramped upstairs office just outside the walls of the old city. The first time I met him, after listening to his views on the Yemeni economy, delivered at high speed in an American accent, I asked him for a copy of the paper.

‘You’ll have to pay for it,’ he said seriously ‘You see, I’m a capitalist.’ I handed over the money — slightly less than 10p.

Within a few years, the Yemen Times had become the most influential paper in the country and, apparently the most successful commercially I met Saqqaf again in his large new offices and he handed me a bundle of back issues. ‘Don’t you want me to pay for them?’ I asked, reminding him of what he had said before.

‘Ah!’ he replied. ‘But in those days I was a poor capitalist.’

The Yemen Times’s first brush with the law was a farcical affair. The Information Minister, who oversaw the press, could not read English, so the articles had to be translated into Arabic for him. On one occasion the translator made a mistake which led to the paper being prosecuted — and ultimately acquitted — for something it had never actually said.

Harassment took many forms. In 1994, shortly after Yemen’s war of secession, Saqqaf was briefly imprisoned without charge and the paper’s computers were seized.

Another time, the paper’s landlord became nervous and decided to throw them out. One day when Saqqaf was out of town, the landlord invited the entire staff to lunch at the Sheraton hotel and, while they were eating, changed the locks on their offices.

In 1995, the Yemen Times won the American NPC’s Award for Freedom of the Press. This marked a growing recognition abroad of the paper’s efforts, as Saqqaf put it, 'to make Yemen a good world citizen’.

His many friendships in the international community gave him some protection against the more authoritarian sections of the government, though clashes continued. Last year the paper was again threatened with prosecution over an article which listed the foreign aid Yemen had received over the years under the headline: ‘Where did it go?’ It was innocently put, but readers were left in no doubt of the suggestion that money had been siphoned off.

Perhaps because of his western education, Saqqaf probably knew more about the art of opposition in a democracy than many of his Yemeni contemporaries. He would pick his targets carefully and not oppose simply for the sake of it.

Occasionally he imagined that the government feared him more than they really did. Saqqaf himself told how he was once summoned to the presidential office. Suspecting an attempt to buy his silence, he began:

‘Mr President, if you’re going to offer me money or a job, I won’t take it.’

The President, slightly taken aback, replied: ‘Actually I wasn’t intending to offer you either.’

Co-opting opponents is an old Yemeni tactic, and in 1997 Saqqaf was appointed to Yemen’s newly-formed upper house of parliament, the Consultative Council. Frustrated at its ineffectiveness, he resigned a few months later, telling the President in a letter that it was ‘a lethargic organ’, despite having tremendous potential. He claimed that the President used the council ‘as a dumping ground for individuals he wants to appease, but whom he doesn’t care to keep on active duty elsewhere.’

He was, however, persuaded to return and once again threw his energies into trying to make it more effective.

Journalism in Yemen, as in other emerging democracies, can be a dangerous profession. There was always something in Saqqaf’s boldness and, indeed, his bravery, that pointed towards a tragic end.

On June 2, he had lunch at a restaurant with a number of people, including Mohammed al-Tayyeb, the Minister of Labour, and Dr Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a member of Consultative Council. While crossing the Haddah Road on the way back he was hit by a car and died shortly afterwards in hospital.

The death, in such circumstances, of a prominent critic of the government is liable to arouse suspicions. A swiftly-issued statement by the official Saba news agency sought to give reassurance. It offered condolences from the Ministry of Information and said that Dr Saqqaf had been run over by a Mercedes, registration number 23059, which was driven by Samer Ahmed Ali, a secondary school student aged 18. The statement added that the youth, a son of Dr Ahmed Al-Seri, a Professor at the Faculty of Arts, had been arrested.

Dr Saqqaf was 46. His death is a great loss to Yemen, and to press freedom.

Author: 
Brian Whitaker