Attacks on the Press 1999: Syria

With the passing of Morocco’s King Hassan II and King Hussein of Jordan, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad became the Arab world’s second-longest-surviving leader. Only Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has ruled longer.

During three decades of one-man rule, Assad has ruthlessly eradicated all internal dissent. His February “reelection” by referendum with nearly 100 percent of the vote (officials reported that only 219 out of 8.9 million voters “disapproved” of his one-man candidacy) was fresh testimony to his intolerance of dissent.

Like most other aspects of society, the Syrian press remained under the absolute control of the government and ruling Baath party; no independent or private media exist. Newspapers, television, and radio echo the views of the state and are unanimous in their support for Assad and his policies. The Ministry of Information closely supervises the country’s state-run dailies and broadcast media, providing strict content guidelines for editors and journalists. Although some newspapers have raised issues such as corruption within the state bureaucracy in recent years, there seems little question that they have done so with official blessing.

The regime censors all foreign publications entering the country, weeding out undesirable news. Over the past two years, the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi has become a frequent target of Syrian censorship; authorities have confiscated numerous editions. In June, authorities banned distribution of the paper outright in response to a front-page editorial criticizing Syria for its inaction during Israeli military strikes in Lebanon and its mention of alleged secret contacts between Syria and Israel.

In one positive development, Syrian authorities agreed in August to allow Jordanian newspapers to resume distribution in Syria after a 10-year ban. However, they too are subject to censorship.

The state’s control over information was not airtight, though. Owing to the availability of satellite dishes, citizens increasingly found alternatives to the stale platitudes of state TV by tuning in pan-Arab and Western television channels. To date, the government has not followed through on its 1994 threat to regulate and seize dishes and appears resigned to their popularity.

The government does not permit public access to the Internet. Nevertheless, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, a few thousand modems are believed to be in use; they tap into Internet service providers in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. In July, the local press reported that the government would finally allow restricted Internet service to state-owned and private business and give limited e-mail privileges to some professionals. CPJ was unable to verify whether authorities had implemented this plan at year’s end.

Despite a presidential amnesty in July that reportedly included a small number of political prisoners, at least six journalists remained in prison, serving time for what they had written or for their affiliations with banned political organizations. There was continuing concern about the failing health of journalist and human-rights activist Nizar Nayyouf, who was serving a 10-year prison sentence in solitary confinement at the Mezze military prison in Damascus. According to reports, he continued to suffer from Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer. Although Nayyouf received successful treatment at the beginning of the year, the disease reportedly returned in full force in August. At year’s end he was believed to need further chemotherapy treatment.

During the year, several appeals from CPJ to Syrian officials on his behalf went unanswered. In addition to Hodgkin’s disease, Nayyouf reportedly suffers from several other serious ailments, including partial paralysis of his lower extremities, allegedly the result of torture. He is also said to suffer from kidney failure and deteriorating eyesight.

June 29
Al-Quds al-Arabi CENSORED

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, received a faxed letter from the state-run Syrian Distribution Company (which operates under the authority of the Ministry of Information), stating that Al-Quds al-Arabi could no longer be distributed in Syria.

The letter was signed by Ali Issa, the company’s director, who gave no reason for the ban. Staff at Al-Quds al-Arabi, however, believe the move came in response to a front-page column published on June 28 entitled “Surprising Symptoms of a New Syria.” The column, written by Atwan, criticized Syria for what he called its inaction during the recent Israeli bombing of Lebanon and reported on secret diplomatic contacts between Israel and Syria.

Al-Quds al-Arabi was granted permission to distribute in Syria in 1997 but has been repeatedly censored by Syrian authorities since then. Authorities have confiscated dozens of editions of the paper.

In a June 30 letter addressed to Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, CPJ protested the ban on Al-Quds al-Arabi and urged him to ensure that it be reversed immediately.