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Omissions in BBC coverage portray ‘misleading’ perception of Yemen conflict

March 11, 2016 at 5:15 pm

A simple statement in a BBC Arabic documentary captured the whole nature of what was once the third largest city in Yemen: “Taiz is now shattered.” Seeing the devastating humanitarian situation was enough to make your blood run cold. The BBC visited Taiz city not only to show the dire need for humanitarian supplies, which are being blocked by a siege, but also to show the need for peace and an end to the conflict.

The documentary gave an insight into what life is like in Taiz. It showed the pain in the eyes of a grieving mother who has lost her son; the way that families are forced to live in destroyed houses with children risking their lives to smuggle medicine, food and water instead of going to school. It also showed what life is like for medical staff and their daily struggles, including operating on patients without anaesthesia, rationing blood and watching their patients die because they cannot give them oxygen. Children have been left without any education for months; their childhood has been stolen from them, either due to illness, mass violence, psychological trauma or, of course, death.

The way that the Yemen conflict has been portrayed in the mainstream British media has varied over the past year. Generally, though, the recurring themes are the future of the Saudi monarchy, UN-sponsored peace talks when they occur, the fact that Yemen is a forgotten conflict and, most importantly, the humanitarian crisis. Domestic politics and some historical context are two factors that have shaped Yemen’s current political situation dramatically, as has the role of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

I spoke to some local officials in Taiz who watched the BBC documentary, in order to get their opinion about it. “It spoke clearly about the siege,” said the city’s deputy governor, Ali Almamry, “but it was ambiguous with regards to who exactly is besieging the city. Just as it is important to cover the siege, it is equally important to describe clearly who is behind the siege.” He suggested that the BBC failed to display the systematic destruction of the city by the Houthi-Saleh forces, and thus presented a “misleading” perception about where the source of the crisis lies. “It is very important to us that the media portrays an accurate and well-rounded perception of what is happening, and doesn’t just look at one side of the political situation.”

In its coverage of the anti-Houthi resistance, the paradigm used by the BBC was too simplistic, relying purely on the Houthi vs Salafi/Al-Qaeda/Daesh dynamic. Although it pointed out that Taiz is a city with a population of 400,000, to admit that so many people are under siege and then claim that resistance fighters have been radicalised by Salafism demonstrates little understanding of the basic dynamics of the war. Not only is the claim culturally inaccurate, but it is also looking at the Taiz resistance from a position of privilege, not having to experience the trauma that comes with the indiscriminate shelling by the Houthi-Saleh forces; not having to watch loved ones die a preventable death when hospitals could not treat them, because the Houthis and Saleh do not discriminate between civilians and militants; or not having endure excruciating stomach cramps, watch their hair fall out and see early death haunt their already demolished home because Houthi and Saleh forces are not allowing food in. To claim blithely that those fighting to liberate a city of 400,000 people under siege are Al-Qaeda and Salafists is both naïve and dishonest.

When looking at the Houthi siege through the lens of tribal affairs which dominate much of Yemen’s politics, the violent expansion into Taiz is seen as a territorial invasion. The fact that this is being facilitated by Saleh accentuates such sentiments, because Taiz is where the 2011 Yemeni revolution which overthrew him began. As a result, many residents inside Taiz believe that the Houthi-Saleh siege is the former president’s revenge. This simple fact of local politics was ignored completely in the BBC documentary.

Even the interviews and civilian accounts in the documentary appeared to be one-sided. According to Almamry, the aim of the documentary seemed to be to prove the presence of Al Qaeda in Taiz. “It is clear that the accounts given in the documentary were chosen to suit this narrative,” he claimed.

The resistance, on the other hand, was portrayed as having no real aim. In a short interview with resistance leader Shaikh Hamoud Al-Mekhlafi, he said, “For the resistance, there cannot be a political solution.” There was no context provided, though. This gave the impression that the resistance is fighting to kill Houthis and Saleh at all costs and are not interested in initiating any peace talks, or that the fighters are disconnected from the political process, whereas the producers did not explain that local experience with the Houthis shows their unwillingness to co-operate with the other citizens in Taiz. I interviewed the son of a kidnapped doctor in January, when he explained how negotiations with the Houthis had failed to obtain the release of Dr Al-Guneid. Unfortunately, this is not a rare example and despite both local and international pressure on Houthis and Saleh to release him, he is still in captivity.

I then spoke to and through him, Sheikh Al-Mekhlafi sent me this exact statement about the overall aims of the resistance in Taiz:

“Regarding the conflict running in Taiz specifically and Yemen in general,” explained Shaikh Al-Mekhlafi in a statement sent through his media officer, “it is between Iranian-backed Houthi militia rebels and military forces loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh — who imposed a military coup in September 2014 — against the legitimate government led by elected President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Our attitude as a resistance force is clear in either Taiz or other areas; to support the legitimate authority backed by regional and international countries to restore the state that was ruined by coup forces.”

More than 1,700 people have been killed by the Houthi-Saleh militia in Taiz, most of them women and children. A further 10,000 have been injured due to nonstop shelling on residential areas of the city as well as the imposed siege over the past ten months. “The city is in a cruel and ruthless situation,” said the resistance leader.

When looking at the situation in Taiz from a dispassionate point of view, as the BBC did, it is easy to create a Houthis and Saleh vs Sunni extremists narrative, though it is neither accurate nor honest. The documentary did cover the humanitarian crisis very well, but it did so without addressing local political and tribal issues. Al-Qaeda in Taiz, as in the rest of Yemen and other Arab countries, has taken advantage of a humanitarian crisis and power vacuum to enhance its presence. To resolve this issue one should not tar the whole resistance network with an Al-Qaeda brush; we need to understand the local political and tribal networks and work with them toward achieving their aim of halting Houthi-Saleh violence and securing gains in a way that will not create a power vacuum which extremists can take advantage of, the way that they took advantage of post-Houthi Aden.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.