Jane Novak, a 46-year-old stay-at-home mother of two in New Jersey, has never been to Yemen. She speaks no Arabic, and freely admits that until a few years ago, she knew nothing about that strife-torn south Arabian country.
And yet Ms. Novak has become so well known in Yemen that newspaper editors say they sell more copies if her photograph — blond and smiling — is on the cover. Her blog, an outspoken news bulletin on Yemeni affairs, is banned there. The government’s allies routinely vilify her in print as an American agent, a Shiite monarchist, a member of Al Qaeda, or “the Zionist Novak.”
The worst of her many offenses is her dogged campaign on behalf of a Yemeni journalist, Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani, who incurred his government’s wrath by writing about a bloody rebellion in the far north of the country. He is on trial on sedition charges that could bring the death penalty, with a verdict expected Wednesday.
Ms. Novak, working from a laptop in her Monmouth County living room “while the kids are at school,” has started an Internet petition to free Mr. Khaiwani. She has enlisted Yemeni politicians, journalists, human rights activists and others around the globe. Her blog goes well beyond the Khaiwani case and has become a crucial outlet for opposition journalists and political figures, who feed her tips on Yemeni political intrigue by e-mail or text message.
She says her campaign is a matter of basic principle. “This is a country that lets Al Qaeda people go free, and they’re putting a journalist on trial for doing his job?” she said. “It’s just completely crazy.”