New Jersey wife and mother Jane Novak started her blog,
Armies of Liberation, as a way of coping with the September 11th attacks. In the years since, she’s become the voice for an imprisoned Yemeni journalist, a semi-celebrity to the Yemeni people, and an enemy of the Yemeni state. Novak tells her story.
BOB GARFIELD: Jane Novak, New Jersey stay-at-home mom, is an enemy of the state. The particular state is Yemen, where Novak's blog, Armies of Liberation, is considered by the government to be seditious propaganda, but by many Yemenis as a voice of freedom, transparency and human rights.
By stumbling upon the struggles of a persecuted journalist and championing his case, one housewife has bedeviled and shamed the oppressive regime.
Novak's story is something like Erin Brockovich meets Lawrence of Arabia, a saga that began in the wake of September 11th when Novak, who had never written an article and knew next to nothing about the Middle East, wanted to do – something. JANE NOVAK: I wanted to talk to the people there just as a normal American, as one parent to another, to at least start some kind of conversation. BOB GARFIELD: Now, your blog took a kind of change in character a couple of years ago when you got on the case of a Yemeni journalist named Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani. First of all, how did you find out about him? And then tell me a little bit about his story. JANE NOVAK: I found out about him when I was reading the Yemeni newspapers, and I discovered that he had been arrested and imprisoned for his writings. BOB GARFIELD: The stories that upset the Yemeni government concerned the government's fight with rebels in the north of the country. Al-Khaiwani went to the north, discovered mass graves and reported on them, and for that he has been persecuted, certainly prosecuted by the government. You started writing about him, and some extraordinary things began to happen. JANE NOVAK: Well, I began to write about his case, and then I began to do some research onto Yemen, and I discovered that it was entirely different than I had thought it was and that it seemed to be.
There is a four-year war going on in Northern Yemen, where the government is engaged in indiscriminate bombing. And there's a lot of civilian casualties, and there's a blockade on food. And it's a near genocide, and in a way it's very similar to the situation in Sudan.
Furthermore, the government is entirely corrupt, so when I starting writing about that, it apparently crossed all the red lines in Yemen because these articles were also published in Yemen in Arabic. And many people were very happy to read them, [LAUGHS] but the Yemeni government was not. BOB GARFIELD: Now, this was a capital case. He had written that he fully expected to be executed on charges of sedition. In fact, the sentence came in a few days ago – six years in prison. Then what happened? JANE NOVAK: What happened was the actual charge he was convicted on was undermining the morale of the military with a published article, and for that he received a six-year sentence. Journalist organizations around the world and the U.S. State Department immediately issued statements calling for this sentence to be overturned.
BOB GARFIELD: What further influence do you suspect that you may have? JANE NOVAK: Well, the influence that I've had on al-Khaiwani's case is to entirely dispel the propaganda that he is a terrorist. They thought that by standing him next to some rebels, that the world would buy that crazy concept, but everyone knows that he's not. He's a journalist.
And, to some degree, I think my efforts give the Yemeni people themselves a lot of hope because they feel that someone can see them and someone is telling their story.
People ask me why did you pick Yemen, and the answer really is Yemen picked me. When everyone started writing me hundreds of letters thanking me for being honest and saying the truth, so I just couldn't turn away from that. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you have never met Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani, but you have been in contact. When did you last communicate? JANE NOVAK: I received a letter from him the day before he was going to be sentenced. And he said don't think I'm saying goodbye, maybe I'll talk to you tomorrow. But it was a – it was a very hard letter to read because he knew he was going to jail. And he said, at least if I'm going in, the world is going to know that I'm not a terrorist; I'm an innocent journalist, and thank you for that.
But I can't – I haven't actually been able to read the letter. [LAUGHS] I just skimmed it, burst into tears and got back to work. BOB GARFIELD: A slight detour. I have to ask you about your husband and your kids. Do you ever hear something like, Mom, enough with Yemen, I want some more – you know, fill in the blank? JANE NOVAK: Sometimes. But my kids are very proud of me, and my husband, as well, because I read them letters from the Yemenis and they're very heartrending statements of gratitude.
This story shows what a person with civil rights and an Internet connection can do, because all I'm doing is writing, talking, researching. And I'm trying to put out correct information about Yemen, and I've received thousands of letters thanking me for my efforts and asking me not to stop.
And what's happening here is that the Internet helped me punch a wall through the iron curtain that the Yemeni government tries to put up between its people and the rest of the world.
And my husband, in particular, is entirely supportive of me. He understands that when there's like a riot in Yemen or al-Khaiwani goes to jail, he may be eatin’ pizza for two days [LAUGHS]. And he never gives me a hard time. And I could never have done this without his strength backing me up. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jane. Thank you very much. JANE NOVAK: It's been my pleasure, Bob. Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Jane Novak is a housewife and blogger at Armiesofliberation.com. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]