Rhiannon Russell listened as Yemeni journalist, and the 2011 Canadian Journalists for Free Expression's International Press Freedom Award winner, Khaled al-Hammadi, spoke of his experiences reporting during the Arab Spring, and how he was kidnapped in 2005 over a story he published.

Rhiannon Russell listened as Yemeni journalist, and the 2011 Canadian Journalists for Free Expression's International Press Freedom Award winner, Khaled al-Hammadi, spoke of his experiences reporting during the Arab Spring, and how he was kidnapped in 2005 over a story he published.

 

Khaled al-Hammadi has been kidnapped by Yemeni forces, got an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and, most recently, won the International Press Freedom Award from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

The Yemeni journalist was in Toronto for the CJFE gala, and after an interview at CBC, he stopped by Ryerson University to talk to a class of first-year journalism students.

Al-Hammadi’s been working as a journalist in Yemen since 1995, and says that since the Arab Spring began, the Yemeni government is pushing journalists to cover some of its news — but certainly not all of it. “They try to keep journalists from covering sensitive issues,” which include religion, the revolution, and the country’s sovereignty Al-Hammadi said. “Despite that, we try to do our job as best as we can.”

Yemen is becoming more and more dangerous for journalists: This year, at least five have been killed by government forces. Al-Hammadi said snipers are increasingly frequent — they’ll sit atop buildings and fire into the crowds of protesters.

Al-Hammadi had a run-in with officials in 2005 when he broke a story about corruption in the air force.

At the time, he was investigating why Yemeni warplanes were crashing so often. (In a two-month period, six planes had crashed, he said.) As it turns out, the air force had been listing purchases of good-quality parts from out of the country, when in actuality, officials were buying parts off the black market and keeping the extra money for themselves.

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He published a report about it, and was then kidnapped by air force officials and interrogated for two days. They wanted his sources, but he refused to disclose them. He did tell them, though, “If this [story] is not correct, tell me, and we’ll publish your corrections in the newspaper.”

Once the Yemeni public learned of his kidnapping, they began to protest and officials subsequently released him. “If the people didn’t react, maybe I would have stayed longer than that,” he said.

Al-Hammadi interviewed bin Laden’s former bodyguard, Abu Jandal, in 2006. It took him months to convince Jandal to participate, and it resulted in a CBS exclusive for 60 Minutes.

The remarkable thing about al-Hammadi is that he tries to maintain a relationship with multiple sides – his contacts include the president, the prime minister, and opposition groups. “Journalists should balance their relationships with all parties,” he said.

One student asked him why, after his kidnapping, he continues to work as a journalist in Yemen. His first response is practical: “I have no option or other choice. If I stop working, I will lose my job, lose my income.” He’s married with six children.

 “Most journalists work in a hard place all the time,” he continued. “Maybe I’m lucky because I’m working in a risky place but it’s within my own country.”

If he left Yemen, he said he’d feel shame for abandoning his country. “We have no other choice. We have to continue our job as it is.”