Two French journalists detained, then deported from Yemen
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sounds the alarm about Yemeni harassment of foreign journalists after two French reporters were arbitrarily detained for more than a week and then deported from Socotra, a Yemeni island at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden that is controlled by Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC).
Freelance journalists Quentin Müller and Sylvain Mercadier were in their apartment on Socotra when the police arrived on 28 May, arrested them without showing any warrant and searched their apartment, seizing their equipment and passports. After being taken to a police station for questioning, they were placed under house arrest for a week and finally pressured to leave the country on 4 June.
The detention of Quentin Müller and Sylvain Mercadier, their house arrest and their deportation mark a resurgence of arbitrary persecution of journalists in Yemen and testify to the prevailing climate of intimidation. The Southern Transitional Council must stop harassing journalists and must release the two other journalists it is still holding.
After arriving in Yemen in 2021 as a French teacher, Müller initially lived on Socotra until April of that year. While there, he wrote several reports for the French daily Libération, the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique and the webzine Orient XXI about the political situation on the island and about meddling by the United Arab Emirates, the Aden-based STC’s main international backer.
After returning to the island on 3 May of this year, Müller learned that he was being watched and was warned that his name and photo had been circulated among the police chiefs. When arrested on 28 May, he was interrogated by the head of the local police, by the head of the national police and by intelligence officers, who had copies of Arabic translations of his articles from two years ago. He was questioned about them at length and it was suggested that he was working for “a third country” – an apparent allusion to Qatar, the UAE’s political rival.
“They made me sign a confession in which I acknowledged my fault in having written political and sensitive articles jeopardising the stability of Socotra while having had no prior permission from the authorities, and promised not to write any more about Socotra,” Müller said.
During a four-day interrogation, the security forces also pressured Müller to reveal his Yemeni sources, even claiming that one of his sources had been arrested. And they accused him of failing to have a journalist’s visa when he entered the country – a spurious charge, in Müller’s opinion. “They didn't object to my writing about the environment in Yemen last year.” he said. “They only arrested me for political articles exposing them."
The two journalists were closely watched while under house arrest. “This could have been worse for us,” Müller recognised. “I think of the Yemeni journalists who cannot leave the country so easily. They are the ones we should be thinking of. The Southerners – the STC – are not very sympathetic to press freedom.”
In a series of tweets, Müller said his arrest had revealed the extent of the control over the various security forces in southern Yemen, including on Socotra, that is wielded by the STC, which is part of the internationally-recognised, Aden-based government although it wants a separate southern Yemen.
Mercadier, the other French journalist to be deported, was arrested arbitrarily because he was with Müller. He is the co-founder and director of The Red Line, an independent Iraqi media outlet.
It is hard for foreign journalists to get visas for Yemen, while Yemeni journalists are ensnared between the various feuding parties and conflicting political allegiances. A recent agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia led to a prisoner swap between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed government in Aden that included the release of four journalists who were being held hostage in Sanaa and had been sentenced to death.
Three Yemeni journalists were killed in 2022 – one of the heaviest media death tolls in any Middle East country. Six Yemeni journalists are still being held hostage, and two are being held by the internationally-recognised government in Aden.