Attacks on the Press 2000: Syria

PRESIDENT HAFEZ AL-ASSAD’S DEATH IN JUNE, after a 30-year reign, marked the passing of one of the most repressive dictators in modern Middle Eastern history. Assad ruled a police state that eliminated political opponents and stifled all independent debate. No independent or private media existed, and newspapers, television, and radio were mere propaganda outlets for Assad and the ruling Baath party.

With the smooth transfer of power to Assad’s 35-year-old son Bashar, the Syrian police state remained essentially intact, including its rigorously controlled press. Before his father’s death, however, Bashar hinted at a more open media policy. “I would like everybody to be able to see everything,” he told The Washington Post in April.

Bashar was sworn in as president in July, after receiving 97 percent of the votes in a referendum in which he was the only candidate. One of his first official moves was to replace the heads of the major print and broadcast media. He also ordered the media to eschew garish honorifics when referring to him by name, a common practice during his late father’s administration.

Officials also spoke of empowering the press. “We want the media to be the fourth authority in the country,” said newly appointed state television and radio director Fayez al-Sayegh in August. “All government bodies are being told to open their doors and let everybody see the truth to serve the public interest.”

State media seemed to take a cue from these official pronouncements. In early October, the official daily Al-Thawra published a local academic’s unusually critical analysis of the state-run Syrian economy. In September, 99 domestic and exiled Syrian intellectuals published a petition in a Lebanese newspaper that urged political reform and called on the government to respect basic human rights, including freedom of expression and the press. The government seemed to tolerate this unusual complaint, although local media completely ignored the high-profile petition and foreign Arab newspapers that did cover it were reportedly banned from entering the country.

Public Internet access began its slow spread under the close guidance of the government, which is the sole service provider. There were reportedly 7,000 public points of connection for the Internet, concentrated mainly in universities, research institutes, and businesses. (Private connections to the Internet were only permitted with a special government license.) Bashar announced that he wanted more than 200,000 points of connection by 2001. However, sites with content about Israel, sexual matters, or Syria’s deplorable human-rights record were apparently blocked. So were the Yahoo! and Hotmail Web sites, both of which provide private e-mail communication.

There were at least two private, government-licensed Internet cafés that allowed users to circumvent government servers and enjoy uncensored access to the Internet. The cost, however, was prohibitive for most Syrians.

As in the rest of the Arab world, regional and international satellite television continued to provide alternative news and information. The government has never followed through on its 1994 threat to regulate and seize satellite dishes, and now seems resigned to their popularity. Over the years, satellite television has allowed Syrians to bypass the turgid state news coverage in favor of more informative media such as Qatar’s feisty Al-Jazeera satellite channel (see “The Gulf States”).

During the year, several imprisoned journalists were freed after completing their terms or in conjunction with an amnesty decreed by Bashar to mark the November 16 anniversary of his late father’s rise to power. But there was no word about whether the remaining jailed journalist-Nizar Nayyouf-would be released. Nayyouf, former editor of the monthly human-rights publication Sawt al-Democratiyya, was serving a 10-year sentence for allegedly disseminating false information and belonging to an unauthorized organization.

Despite reports that he had been released earlier in the year, Nayyouf remained in prison and was said to be in failing health. (See also “Lebanon”)