SANAA (Reuters) - A spate of attacks on journalists in Yemen, including an unsolved murder, threaten to undermine the growth of media freedoms as the U.S.-backed government enacts pro-democracy reforms, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Threats, harassment, physical assault, disappearances and attempted murder are among the attacks cited by journalists and local activists, which President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had failed to condemn, the U.S.-based rights group said.
While Yemenis generally enjoyed greater freedom of expression since Hadi replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh as president in February 2012, the newfound freedom had been tempered by a rising incidence of threats and violence against the media.
"President Hadi's failure to address the attacks on Yemeni journalists not only denies them justice, but makes the media as a whole afraid of further and more serious attacks," said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
"If the advances in free speech are to have a real and lasting impact on Yemeni society, the government should condemn and rigorously investigate all attacks on journalists and ensure those responsible are brought to justice."
A government official was not immediately available for comment on the report.
HRW said that in one case, an outspoken journalist, Wagdy al-Shabi, 28, was killed in his home in Aden in February, along with a friend. Shabi's wife heard gunshots in the room where her husband and his friend were talking.
"I saw two men wearing civilian dress and military vests with guns," the report quoted her as saying. "They saw me and started shooting in my direction, but I was able to escape to the bedroom and hid with my children."
No arrests have been made in the case.
Restoring stability in Yemen has become a priority for the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, concerned about al Qaeda militants operating in a country that adjoins top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and overlooks major global shipping lanes.
Hadi took office with firm U.S. support after protracted unrest forced Saleh, once also a U.S. ally, to step down in late 2011 after 33 years in power.
A southerner with a military background, Hadi was Saleh's vice president for nearly two decades. He has sought to keep the support of Saleh's friends and foes alike as he oversees major reforms in a two-year interim period in which he is meant to ensure a transition to democracy.
The transition deal, signed in Saudi Arabia, aims to hold the country together in the face of internal divisions and separatist movements as well as the challenge from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.
The report said senior Yemeni officials told Human Rights Watch representatives in Sanaa in February that political insecurity and instability remained their greatest challenge.
They said this hampered their efforts to investigate attacks, not only on journalists but also against their own security officers and government ministers. A few officials accused the Yemeni media of lacking professionalism and harming the country's political transition, the report said.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Yara Bayoumy, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Angus McDowall and Elizabeth Piper)