Sanaa, Yemen – The last upload on Ahmed Hajar’s YouTube channel, which has almost 250,000 subscribers and millions of views, was on December 22.
On the same day, Hajar was dragged into a bus in broad daylight on a busy street in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Witnesses said armed individuals, believed to be Houthi rebels in control of the city, had snatched him.
The content of Hajar’s penultimate upload may explain why he was taken: a 10-minute video criticising corruption in the Houthi-controlled areas of northern Yemen, titled “The Sanaa Government loots the wealth of Yemen and Yemenis”.
The number of independent media outlets has shrunk in Yemen as a result of the country’s war, which began in 2014. That is particularly the case in Houthi-controlled parts of the country.
YouTube has become a rare space for independent voices who, while careful not to cross any red lines, had expressed dissent towards some Houthi officials, and criticised corruption.
Despite these YouTubers making efforts to criticise the Saudi-led coalition, which backs the Yemeni government warring with the Houthis, the Iran-backed rebel group appears to have decided to further crack down on freedom of expression.
Hajar was not the only one caught in the latest wave of arrests. Mustafa al-Mawmari and Ahmed Allaw, two other prominent Yemeni YouTubers, were also arrested after they posted videos expressing solidarity with Hajar.
Local media outlets reported on Tuesday that all three of the men had their cases referred to a court in Sanaa for investigation.
Khalil al-Omari, the editor-in-chief of Rai al-Yemen news website, told Al Jazeera that the arrests were a continuation of the Houthis’ zero-tolerance approach to opposition voices.
“They want you to speak or write in a specific way that does not oppose them, dispute their rule or control,” said al-Omari. “So, the recent detention of YouTubers is a cruel message to anyone who thinks of crossing the lines drawn by them.”
“They simply talked about high prices, exorbitant taxes, widespread poverty, unpaid salaries, and they called for peace. For the Houthis, talking about these issues is a red line and should not be crossed.”
The Houthis have not commented publicly on the arrests, but have repeatedly argued that they are defending Yemen against attacks from the Saudi-led coalition.
One pro-Houthi voice, Sanaa-based lawyer Abdulwahab Alkhail, argued that the content shared by the YouTubers had been used to justify the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in the war in Yemen.
“The three YouTubers intentionally presented inaccurate media content that distorts the image of the Sanaa government,” Alkhail said in a tweet shared on January 2.
Independent media retreat
The Houthi takeover of much of northern Yemen in 2014, including the most populous parts of the country, followed by a devastating war, has ushered in a bleak era for independent media outlets in the country, after a brief period where freedom of speech had expanded following Yemen’s 2011 uprising.
Between 2014 and 2022, parties to the conflict in Yemen, including the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, killed 45 Yemeni journalists, according to the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate (YJS).
Human rights groups have also criticised all sides in the conflict for the continued harassment and prosecution of journalists.
“An independent journalist in Sanaa or any other Yemeni province is constantly at risk,” said Mohammed, a journalist in Sanaa, who did not want to have his full name published for security reasons. “Gone are the days when I used to take pride in my profession and introduce myself as a reporter without fear.”
Mohammed contributes to several news websites in Yemen and tries not to cover issues that anger the Houthis.
Mohammed says a 2020 court case in which four Yemeni journalists were sentenced to death by a Houthi-run court in Sanaa is always in the back of his mind whenever he writes.
“Neither I nor any other media professional dare to speak frankly about the Houthis in a way similar to what Hajar did,” Mohammed told Al Jazeera. “We understand the consequences: detention, incarceration, or death.”
It was as a result of that fear from the traditional media, both in Houthi and government-controlled parts of Yemen, that space opened up for YouTubers to attract followers.
Some, like al-Mawmari, have proven to be immensely popular. He has more than two million subscribers on YouTube, and large crowds attended his wedding in Sanaa after he issued an open invite to his fans.
“The YouTubers have been focusing on social issues, but are different to the traditional media,” said al-Omari. “Their distinct characteristic is their simple language, spontaneous speech and down-to-earth approach that sympathises with the suffering of civilians.”
Slam the Houthis and the Saudis
The arrest of the YouTubers may yet backfire on the Houthis, with many Yemenis in Houthi-controlled areas angry at the mounting crackdown on one of the few, albeit limited, spaces for freedom of expression.
Izadeen Abdu, a 24-year-old university student in Sanaa, is a subscriber of Hajar’s social media accounts. He says Hajar and his fellow YouTubers have been arrested because their words are “bullets to the ears of the warlords in Yemen”.
“They [YouTube influencers] have slammed the Houthi group and the Saudi-led coalition alike,” said Abdu. “The two warring sides are responsible for taking Yemen to where it is today. That is why we appreciate their videos and follow their accounts. They are bold speakers, not a**-lickers,” said Abdu.
While the parties to the conflict in Yemen have displayed hostility to independent media outlets, they have simultaneously established dozens of news websites over the years of the war and hired journalists.
From September 2014 to April 2021, 143 Yemeni news websites were launched, according to a report by Khuyut, an independent news outlet in Yemen. About 90 percent of the content published on those websites is biased, one-sided, politically motivated, and does not meet professional standards, according to Khuyut.
“The Houthis have hired journalists and launched news websites. But they cannot attract all the social media activists and YouTubers,” said al-Omari. “When they cannot tempt their critics, they punish them.”