There’s a lot going on in the world for news media to cover right now. Japan’s triplet disasters, Libya’s protests and resulting military intervention, and Haiti’s second attempt at presidential elections since November’s failed first round are all stories rightfully claiming headlines.
Yet the protests in Yemen are also worth media attention. Caught up in the Arab spring, this country to the south of Saudi Arabia is the latest Middle Eastern location to demand a regime change, and the ouster of its president, 30-year ruler Ali Abdallah Saleh. Similar to the government response in Libya, Saleh has used violent means in an attempt to disperse the protests.
Ottawa-based entrepreneur Maria Al-Masani wasn’t happy with the amount of news coverage coming out of the region.
Al-Masani moved to Canada from Yemen seven years ago and has deep roots in the country – her father was a former advisor to Saleh and her uncle helped found the Yemen Times newspaper. With friends and family still living in Yemen and in apparent danger, she turned to social media to take action.
“The government prevented Aljazeera journalists from leaving their offices and smashed a Reuters camera,” she says. “Now every Yemeni with Facebook is the new Aljazeera journalist and every cell phone in Yemen is the new Reuters camera.”
So Al-Masani, founder and CEO of Visionary PR and experienced political communicator (not to mention former Miss Universe Canada contestant), started a Facebook group, Yemen Rights Monitor, that would give her Yemeni contacts a direct voice to the public. She invited those at the protests to upload first-hand accounts of any human rights violations taking place.
Protestors have responded by snapping photos and shooting video with their cell phones and updating the group frequently. Group members have documented evidence of government snipers shooting protestors, and gas being used to disperse crowds in capital city Sana’a’s Square of Change. When the group grew beyond 300 members, Al-Masani decided to launch a blog at YemenRightsMonitor.com to make the information even more public. Be warned that some of the posts there contain disturbing images.
She has one goal for her social media campaign. To raise awareness about what the government is doing and to save lives. Every day, the blog is updated with a list of casualties from Yemen.
“I check it and none of my friends and relatives are on that list, and I’m happy and I move on with my day,” she says.
Yemen Rights Monitor is a stunning example of social media’s power to give a voice to those who otherwise may never be heard by the world. Almost half of Yemeni citizens live below the poverty line, but they are still able to publish to the world by harnessing free tools on the Internet.
Starting on Sunday, international news media did start to pay more attention to Yemen as President Saleh’s military commanders and foreign ambassadors began defecting and joining the opposition. But President Saleh remains in power, even making an announcement of new appointments to his council via his official Web site.
Al-Masani won’t rest easy until Saleh is removed from power, and the violence against civilians comes to a definitive end. “The next 48 hours are crucial,” she says.