This week, host Muna Gasim and panellist Akshata Kapoor welcome journalist Afrah Nasser for an in-depth discussion of human rights reporting, bias, gender inequity, and more in Yemen and the international community at large. Our discussion this week covers topics ranging from the role of objectivity in human rights reporting to both the benefits and pitfalls of technology and social media. Nasser shares insights with Muna and Akshata on finding role models and the most important ways that governments and residents alike can support Yemeni rights.

In 2011, there were civilian uprisings in Yemen alongside other Middle Eastern countries during the Arab Spring. In September 2014, the Houthi rebel group, in alliance with former President Saleh, ousted President Hadi and started a full-fledged war. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE with a coalition of Arab countries started a military campaign to reinstate President Hadi. Governments of Western countries continue to supply arms to the Saudi coalition that has been conducting relentless airstrikes in Yemen, affecting large swaths of civilian infrastructure and the population. Six years later, there seems to be no end in sight to the war in Yemen. 

According to the Yemen Data Project, since March 2015 there have been 18,569 civilian casualties and 22,701 air strikes. Thousands died in 2017 due to an outbreak of cholera and a breakdown of the healthcare system, which has yet to recover. A starving population is denied access to aid due to restrictions imposed by the Houthis. Women, political dissidents, and journalists are victims of arbitrary punishments. How does one report on such a conflict where so many different parties are complicit in the violation of human rights? What standards do you hold different parties to, and to what extent is it even possible to hold parties accountable? 

From humble beginnings in Yemen to an early career in journalism and the role of a blogger in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, former Yemeni journalist, political writer, and human rights defender Afrah Nasser has been advocating for women’s empowerment and human rights in Yemen for over a decade. Nasser has written for and made appearances on numerous news outlets, including Al-Jazeera, The Monitor, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and others. She is the recipient of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society Organization’s 2017 Eldh-Ekblads Peace Prize, the Pennskaft Prize in 2016, the Swedish Publicists Club’s 2014 Dawit Issak Prize, and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 2017. In 2013, Nasser was named by BBC as one of the “100 Women Who Changed the World,” and has been featured three times as one of the 100 most influential Arabs by Arabian Business Magazine. Her blog, created during Yemen’s 2011 uprisings, has won her the recognition of CNN and Al-Monitor as one of the most influential blogs in the Middle East for her coverage of human rights. Today, she works as the Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen.

“I think the question is, … what is your bias? Are your biases towards civilians? Towards human rights? Towards the integrity … the need for people to live in dignity, and, you know, for justice to be served? That’s my bias.”

Afrah Nasser

Our conversation begins with a discussion of the role of objectivity in journalism. Nasser shares that an emphasis on objectivity should not eclipse the humanity of the people in Yemen. Even those who believe themselves to be perfectly impartial, as academics often strive to be, are still likely to carry an implicit set of beliefs and biases which can skew data and information. To account for this, Nasser emphasizes the need for diversity of background and perspective – academics, researchers, human rights activists, witnesses, and other key stakeholders should come together at the same table.

“It’s really about having all these perspectives included. Because excluding local voices really harms what you’re trying to do.”

Afrah Nasser

Nasser also shares her experiences as a female journalist working in a male dominated field. She observes that even when female voices are represented, they are all too often disregarded or dismissed. Years of this disregard can culminate in imposter syndrome, or the belief that one does not deserve the position they have accomplished – when a woman is shown over and over that her opinions are not valued, this lowered esteem can become internalized. To help bolster confidence in women who are pursuing journalism – or any career – Nasser encourages finding and researching role models who have helped pave the way for the next generation to follow.

“It’s thanks to my mother actually, who taught me that your gender should mean nothing. It’s really about you, and your personality, and your hard work that determines what you want to be in the society.”

Afrah Nasser

With regard to the role of technology in sharing information, Nasser notes the clear benefits of heightened communication and access to information. The #MeToo movement in particular, she says, showed the power that women can wield when coming together to occupy new spaces and support one another. However, she is careful to raise the point that men and women encounter the online sphere in very different ways – while men and women alike receive negative commentary from adversaries, Nasser reflects on the trolling, sexual harassment, and hate speech, which combine to form what she calls “hate poetry,” which is directed disproportionately at women online. Governments and regulating bodies have a responsibility to end digital violence and make online presence safe for all.  

“Very often I live with that trauma, that my opinions don’t matter. And every time I was getting the awards I was like, really? Are they sure? Is my work this important? But I always knew I was so passionate about writing. Like I could physically get sick if I don’t write, if I don’t express the things that I was seeing, or just doing proper journalism.”

Afrah Nasser

Likewise, the rise of citizen journalism has helped grassroots movements and human rights defenders make great strides in understanding and fighting against the abuses taking place worldwide. Simultaneously, oppressive governments are able to weaponize digital platforms to target dissidents and protestors, and further restrict free expression. In many countries, journalists and activists feel as though it is just a matter of time before it is “their turn” to be arrested for speaking out in criticism of the oppressive state. Part of the responsibility for correcting this falls on the shoulders of Western states and diplomats, who have the ability to pressure governments to respect the rights of their people.

“Diplomats should use their freedom of expression to support the oppressed.”

Afrah Nasser

Nasser concludes by encouraging all listeners and supporters to show solidarity by uplifting the voices and experiences of Yemenis.

“As a principle, if you really want to show solidarity for any Yemeni just amplify their voices. it’s not about you, it’s not about hijacking their struggle, just amplify Yemeni voices.”

Afrah Nasser

Learn more:

Read Afrah Nasser’s bio on Human Rights Watch

Follow Afrah Nasser on Twitter

Human Rights Watch Articles about the Yemeni Crisis:

International Federation of Journalists: Yemen: Journalists continue facing harsh conditions