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The Houthi Media Strategy

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Dr. Haifa AlMaashi

Director, Geo-strategic Affairs Division

Tag: GCC Yemen Current Affairs
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The Al Masera TV channel, affiliated to Al Houthis in Yemen, has broadcast pictures of victims claiming that they had been targeted by the Saudi air force in refugee camps located at Murzuq in Haradh, a part of the Hajaa province. These were the same camps that had suffered from Al Houthi attacks while the group was stretching its control over Hajjah and other provinces, after their massive emergence outside their homeland of Saada.

Al Houthi attacks had interrupted the work of international aid organisations in the Yemeni refugee camps as well as the African refugee camps scattered in the area, not too far away from the danger zone. Occupants of these refugee camps had already been subjected to various forms of torture, smuggling and human-trafficking by Al Houthis.
Yemens Foreign Minister, Riad Yassin, discredited the TV news and considered it a propaganda ploy adopted by Al Houthis. Yassin pointed out that Al Houthis were the ones who had shelled the displaced camps with their own artillery. The Foreign Ministers statement is not far from the truth. When the Arab coalition forces launched Storm of Resolve, Al Houthis directed their artillery fire at people, houses and even mosques in the city of Aden.
This was confirmed by eye-witnesses inside the areas of Khor Maksar and Krater in Aden, who explained the Al Houthi tactic as a retaliatory ploy against coalition bombs that have left them with many casualties. There was further evidence of this in the Northern provinces, when Al Houth is  bombed a dairy factory in Hodeidah, where many civilians were killed. Many eye-witnesses confirmed that it was hit by artillery and Katyusha (rocket launcher) belonging to Al Houthis.

Al Houthi rebels and the party of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh see the media as their only way to provoke a conflict, internally as well as internationally, between anti and pro-Storm of Resolve factions in a desperate attempt to win the battle.

There are hundreds of victims of Al Houthi attacks in the south  including Aden, Dalea, Abihan, Shabwa and Huta in Lahej. In spite of such brutalities by the rebels, many media outlets loyal to Al Houthis, both inside Sanaa as well as abroad, have focused their coverage on the repercussions of aerial bombardments by coalition forces in Sanaa and Saada and have resorted to blatant exaggeration and falsification of truth.

The media plays a central and decisive role in directing the military and the political game within the scope of Storm of Resolve. This indicates the significance of the media for all parties involved in the coalition, especially with the proliferation of criticism by some local observers within the coalition states. As a result of which, sections of media have suffered at the hands of Al Houthis, while media sources loyal to Saleh are fuelling bitterness among the Yemeni public within the northern governorates, specifically in Sanaa, and trying to engineer public opinion against the coalition campaign. Different media channels inside Iran as well as those loyal to non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon are also pursuing a similar line.

Al Houthis are using the media to attack and defend at the same time. For them, media, on the one hand, is a defensive tool when trying to portray themselves as victims of coalition bombing. On the other hand, media is also a means of attack through their occupation of Aden, the presidential palace and Aden ports in particular,  to drive home the message that the authority of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been undermined.
Claims that Al Qaida had attacked the city of Al Mukallah on April 2 demonstrates the propaganda ploy adopted by Saleh and Al Houthis. This becomes all the more clear in the light of the timing of such a move when Al Houthis and those loyal to Saleh are locked in a confrontation with the forces of the alliance, Southern resistance and the militias of legitimacy. This effectively punches holes in the credibility of Al Houthi claims and only points to the involvement of hidden hands behind attacks that are only linked to the Al Houthis own interests. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula usually focuses on conducting their terrorist acts to fulfil specific objectives, choosing specific targets to deliver a specific message as what had happened in Al Aurdi Hospital or in the mosques of Badr and Al Hashosh in Sanaa. That objective was not clear in case of the attack on Al Mukallah.

Indeed, trying to bring Al Qaida into the picture is a weak attempt by Al Houthis to stir up political and security chaos and to exploit such pandemonium through biased media coverage.

The criticism of the Arab coalition by some international observers is totally expected in the light of the circumstances and the contradictions that surround Yemen and the Arab region in general, in addition to the ignorance about the Yemeni political reality before the start of Storm of Resolve. What indeed is surprising however is the effort being made by some sides to transform the offender into a victim. Thereby influencing international public opinion and attracting sympathy for the offender, either for the purpose of harming the interests of certain countries or disrupting the strategic balance in the region, particularly with regard to Iran and the Gulf states. This applies to the Yemens case where official and non-official bodies sympathise with Al Houthis without any logical ground for such stance. Perhaps a statement by the Commissioner of the United Nations Human Rights, Zeid Al Hussain, reflects such attitude, when he indicated that there were civilian casualties in the ranks of Al Houthis in Sanaa and Saada as a result of aerial bombardment by coalition forces. Unfortunately, his observation was probably based on information from Al Houthi sources and therefore it lacked truth.

Shortly after the start of Storm of Resolve, the controversial statements promoted by some groups across social networking platforms and some TV channels, that Yemen would collapse and it would enter into a black hole, are utterly misleading and mala fide. Yemen, in fact, was in a state of total collapse and heading towards a catastrophe before Storm of Resolve started. As for the ordinary citizens, both in the North and the South, the collapse was obvious even before Salehs exit from power and the Al Houthi occupation of Sanaa and the subsequent escape of Hadi to Aden. People were suffering in the absence of a safe and stable environment. Yemen was no longer a suitable place to embrace the tenets of a civil state.

The policy to manipulate facts and use them to promote the interests of some parties through various media outlets will be continued by Al Houthis, Iran, Russia or by non-state actors. The appeal by Irans Deputy Foreign Minister, Hassan Qashqavi, to the International Red Crescent and human rights organisations to help Yemenis who are suffering under the weight of the aggression led by the Saudis, is a form of media manipulation. Iranian media has mastered this art of confrontation with Gulf countries in particular with regard to the issue of Iraq, the crisis in Syria, Tehrans nuclear programme and the case of refuting UAEs legitimate claim to three islands. Iran depends on several elements in the media to strengthen its position on these issues. Issuing different statements through different Iranian officials (religious, political or military), attempting to influence different segments of the public, including Iranian, Shiite and international publics. Spreading wrong information and distorting truth to raise the level of suspicion, and finally, repeatedly broadcasting its messages through different spokespersons in an attempt to install lies and half-truths as facts, like the way it did with statements on Yemen after September 21, last year. Statements issued by Iranian officials sought to confirm that Sanaa had become a subsidiary of Iran!

The confrontation between the coalition forces and Al Houthis (and their allies) in Yemen and beyond is not solely a military confrontation, but it is a media war that is important for the coalition not to lose.

Modest attempts by the Media Centre for the Southern resistance, which covers news from the South, are playing a positive role in highlighting the weaknesses of Al Houthis and troops loyal to Saleh. The Media Centre has done this through tracking Al Houthi movements and their attacks in the southern provinces. The Centres aim is to reveal  Al Houthis embedded intentions to seize the south and turn the entire conflict into a gang-war,  to prevent Storm of Resolve from achieving its objectives.

In addition, such media centres, despite their limited capabilities, have utilised the possibilities of social networking sites positively by sending warning messages to detect Al Houthi gatherings at different locations. The Centres also follow their progress in the south and report on the whereabouts of the Al Houthi snipers,  particularly on the Aden-Lahej Road and Mukeiras-Shakra Road.

This kind of media role can help in building domestic public opinion and that among the Southerners in particular. There is a need to use the media more efficiently to influence Arab and international public opinion and to refute the allegations of Al Houthis and their allies. That can be achieved through sustained and collective media campaigns, organised by all the states that are part of the coalition, and its success will depend on transparency and the continuous and accurate monitoring of the situation in Yemen.
Originally published in Gulf News April 11 2015

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