A year and a half after the youthful Bashar al-Assad came to power following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, hopes that the new president would usher in an era of greater press freedom gave way to cynicism and disillusionment. President al-Assad’s regime has made it abundantly clear that while it will tolerate the existence of a few independent media outlets, the margins of acceptable discourse are strictly limited.
The Syrian government allowed CPJ to conduct an investigative mission to Syria in April–the first officially sanctioned visit by an international human rights organization since 1995. During the two-week trip, Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna met with Syrian journalists and intellectuals and sampled Syria’s new press freedom climate firsthand.
When he took office, al-Assad replaced the heads of the state-controlled media, and officials began promoting greater transparency in government. The normally rigid state papers began to publish cautious discussions about political reform and democracy, and the ruling Baath Party eventually allowed the publication of the first nonstate newspapers in nearly four decades–including the pro-regime Syrian Communist Party newspaper Sawt al-Shaab and the Socialist Unionist Party mouthpiece Al-Wahdawi. More significantly, the privately owned satirical weekly Al-Domari was launched in late February.
The press liberalization took place against the backdrop of a more general opening in Syrian civil society. Syrian intellectuals and activists began to issue statements urging political and social liberalization. Many began to convene discussion groups, or salons, in their homes to discuss social and political issues–actions that could have easily landed them in jail under the iron-fisted rule of Hafez al-Assad.
But the changes quickly generated a backlash from Baath Party hard-liners, and the effect was soon felt in the state press. Essays about reform and democracy disappeared, and state newspapers reverted to their old leaden style, heaping praise on the regime and launching attacks against dissidents and activists.
In June, the Ministry of Information excised two pages of Al-Domari that contained unflattering items about Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa Miro.
Several other private and party newspapers were eventually allowed to publish–among them Al-Nour, a paper affiliated with an offshoot of the Syrian Communist Party, and the weekly economics magazine Al-Iqtisadiya. But they too avoided controversial political topics and any substantive criticism of the regime.
On September 22, Bashar al-Assad announced tough restrictions on the print media. While his decree took the important step of legalizing private newspapers for the first time in nearly 40 years, it also severely limited what they can print.
The decree codified strict content bans on several topics, including “national security” and “national unity.” Publications can be suspended for up to six months for violating the content bans, and the prime minister can revoke the licenses of repeat offenders. The new legislation criminalized a host of vague offenses, such as publishing “falsehoods” and “fabricated reports,” which carry prison terms of one to three years and fines of between 500,000 and 1 million lira (US$9,456-$18,913). Publications that violate these restrictions face suspensions of up to six months. Libel and defamation are punishable by fines and up to a year in jail.
All periodicals must obtain a license from the prime minister, who can reject any application for the sake of the “public interest.” Individuals who publish without a license can be jailed for up to three months. The law also allows censorship of foreign publications–copies of which must be submitted to the Ministry of Information–and requires that journalists divulge their sources when authorities ask them to do so.
To avoid the restrictions on the local media, Syrian writers continued to express dissenting views in regional Arabic newspapers, such as Lebanon’s Al-Nahar and London’s Al-Hayat, or on satellite channels such as Qatar’s popular Al-Jazeera.
In August, Syrian authorities appeared to close this loophole by harassing or arresting a number of Syrian writers and intellectuals who had expressed critical views about Syria in pan-Arab media.
Despite the May release of jailed journalist and human rights activist Nizar Nayyouf, who had served nine years of a 10-year sentence for allegedly disseminating false information and belonging to an unauthorized organization, authorities continued to pressure him. Shortly after his release, Nayyouf was kidnapped and held for two days, presumedly by security agents. In early September, while he was in France receiving medical treatment, Nayyouf was charged with “trying to change the constitution by illegal means and issuing false reports from a foreign country”–an offense punishable by five years in prison, according to his lawyer. The charges apparently stemmed from critical remarks Nayyouf made about the regime after his release. Authorities were also said to have harassed Nayyouf’s relatives because they refused to condemn his statements.
Under Bashar al-Assad, whose government is the country’s sole Internet Service Provider (ISP), public Web access continued its gradual spread. According to some estimates, there were more than 10,000 Internet users in Syria last year. Several thousand more were thought to have connected via Jordanian and Lebanese ISPs to avoid government censorship. Internet cafés also have sprung up across the country.
Web sites with content about Israel, sexual matters, or criticism of Syria’s poor human rights record are frequently blocked, as are sites that allow access to free e-mail accounts, which are difficult for the government to monitor. Some newspapers’ sites were also banned, but enforcement is erratic and Web surfers can easily navigate around the restrictions.
Authorities are believed to monitor e-mail traffic. In December 2000, security forces detained and held a woman for several months without charge after she forwarded an e-mail that contained an off-color cartoon of Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese president Emile Lahoud. She was released late in the year.
Syrian authorities censored pages from the privately owned satirical weekly Al-Domari. The offending pages featured an article and accompanying cartoon that mocked Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa Miro.
According to the paper’s publisher, Ali Farzat, the Ministry of Information and the prime minister’s office threatened to ban the paper outright unless he agreed to excise two pages from the issue.
The two pages contained an article titled “Doctor Miro Is Depressed. He Has Lost His Enthusiasm,” which attacked the government for failing to carry out economic reforms. An accompanying cartoon depicted a horse that had collapsed from exhaustion while pulling a cart whose driver is cracking his whip. The caption read: “Rumors of a change in government tie the minister’s hands.”
The paper was reportedly published with blank spaces where the censored articles had been.