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YEMEN: First privately run radio station ready to hit the airwaves

April 27, 2010 |  6:27 am

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Forget celebrity gossip, Arabic pop and beauty advice. When Yemen's first privately owned radio station, Modern Yemen, goes on air, it plans to make a splash with substance.

Corruption, human trafficking and child brides are some of the controversial topics that will be discussed as soon as Yemen's new media law, which will allow privately owned radio and television stations to broadcast on Yemeni airwaves, is passed by the government.

"It's like a dream come true," said Rahma Hugaira, president of the Yemeni nonprofit Media Women Forum, one of the groups that spearheaded the radio station.

During a tour of  the studio, located on the bottom floor of her organization's office, Hugaira said dozens of news shows already had been prerecorded and produced by a staff of mostly freelance Yemeni journalists.

"So far, we've done 30 programs on economic reforms, around 20 programs on women and children and 10 on early marriage," Hugaira told Babylon & Beyond.

Plans are also in the pipeline to air some of the programs on Yemen's state-run Sana Radio following an agreement with the country's broadcast regulators.

According to Hugaira, one of the station's main goals is to encourage tolerance among residents in Yemeni society. 

"Development and helping the country forward won't happen until we reach the grassroots level," she said. "We journalists just talk to ourselves here."

But reaching out to the entire country will not be easy, Hugaira said, although Yemenis are frequent radio listeners.

The radio team is currently brainstorming strategies to reach out to people nationwide. One of the ideas includes getting one of the country's cellphone operators to send text messages informing those in rural areas about the new radio station. 

Reporters have been instructed to include people with different Yemeni dialects in each program as well as participants from various social classes and professional fields.

For example, listeners could expect programs in which ordinary people debate unemployment issues and women's rights with government officials and civil-society activists.

Yemeni child-bride divorcee Nujoud Ali, 12, who became a symbol for the country's child brides two years ago when she demanded a divorce from her thirtysomething husband, also is scheduled to go on air to participate in a program on child marriages.

Hugaira says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so far, but she still has concerns that some of the more controversial programs could spark "aggression."

Excitement over the potential introduction of privately run television and radio in Yemen in the near future has been overshadowed by concerns over a new draft media law.

Press-freedom advocates and journalists describe the proposed legislation as an attempt by the government to quash free speech in the country shrouded in rosy promises of private television and radio. Under the proposal, journalists reportedly will be prohibited from using cellphone cameras. License fees for starting a news website can run as high as $90,000.

"I think it is the worst ever thing that could even happen to the media in Yemen,"  Walid Saqaf, founder of YemenPortal, a news website blocked in Yemen, said in an e-mail conversation. "It may be true that it would allow the introduction of private broadcasting in the country, but along with it, it would bring draconian measures that could curb the remaining slim margin of freedom of expression."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Sana, Yemen

Photos: The studio of Modern Yemen radio station at the Media Women Forum in Sana. Credit: Alexandra Sandels / Los Angeles Times

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