Government revokes private weekly’s license

New York, August 5, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the Syrian government’s closure of the privately owned satirical weekly Al-Domari.

Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer representing the paper, told CPJ that the government canceled the newspaper’s license on July 31. On Sunday, August 3, the state-owned daily Tishrin reported that the Ministry of Information revoked the paper’s license because it had failed to publish within the last three months—a violation of Syria’s press law.

In April, Al-Domari publisher Ali Farzat ceased publishing under government pressure. He resumed publication in late July when the Ministry of Information informed him that he risked loosing his license if the paper remained out of circulation for three consecutive months. Even after a private printer produced the issue, the state-controlled distributor refused to dispense the paper, forcing Al-Domari staff to distribute issues on their own.

But sources in Syria report that the paper was most likely closed last week because of its aggressive coverage of Syrian political affairs in its latest edition, which was printed in late July after a nearly three-month hiatus. The issue featured articles that criticized the lack of press freedom in Syria, as well as the country’s tough new press law.

“Closing Al-Domari is yet another blow to press freedom in Syria,” said CPJ senior program coordinator Joel Campagna. “If President Bashar al-Assad is serious about encouraging media openness, as he has publicly declared in the past, then he should ensure that Al-Domari is allowed back on newsstands, and that its journalists are allowed to work without further harassment.”

Launched in February 2001, Al-Domari was the first privately owned newspaper allowed to publish in Syria after a nearly 40-year ban on the private press. Its establishment fostered hopes that president Bashar al-Assad, who came to power following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, would liberalize Syria’s tightly controlled media.

Despite initial progress, media freedoms have faltered amidst a crackdown on dissent. Since 2001, the government has prosecuted and jailed several pro-democracy activists who criticized the government and advocated political reform. Authorities also issued a highly restrictive press law that grants officials the power to suspend newspapers for up to six months and allows the prime minister to revoke the licenses of repeat offenders. Violators can also be jailed for one to three years and fined between 500,000 and 1 million lira (US$9,500 and US$18,900) for publishing “falsehoods” and “fabricated reports.”

Since Al-Domari‘s inception in 2001, publisher Ali Farzat, a renowned political cartoonist, has complained of repeated official harassment. Farzat told CPJ yesterday that the state-owned printing press he used refused to print his paper, and that officials have attempted to review issues before distribution. He also said that the government has pressured advertisers to withhold ads.