SANAA (Reuters) - Attacks on journalists in Yemen, including an unsolved murder, threaten to undermine gains in 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.
Hadi took office with U.S. support after popular protests forced Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down as president in late 2011 after 33 years in power.
While Yemenis generally enjoy greater freedom of expression since Hadi took power, that freedom has been tempered by rising incidents 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, HRW's acting Middle East director.
"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 said the assaults on journalists were carried out by armed groups not connected with the authorities. The Interior Ministry had to take responsibility for bringing those groups to justice, he said.
"The issue of freedoms is not perfect but it is better than under the previous regime," Rajih Badi, an adviser to Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, said.
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 borders oil exporter Saudi Arabia and overlooks major global shipping lanes.
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 reforms in a two-year interim period in which he is meant to ensure a transition to democracy. He faces internal divisions, separatist movements in the north and south, and a challenge from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.
The HRW report said senior Yemeni officials told its representatives in Sanaa in February that political insecurity and instability remained their greatest challenge, and this hampered efforts to investigate attacks on journalists, security officers and government ministers.
It said a few officials accused local media of lacking professionalism and harming the political transition.
HRW said in one case, an outspoken journalist, Wagdy al-Shabi, 28, was killed in his home in Aden in February, along with a friend. No arrests have been made in the case.
"I saw two men wearing civilian dress and military vests with guns," the report quoted Shabi's wife 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."
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Yara Bayoumy, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Janet Lawrence)