Although Syrian officials continued to pay lip service to their support for more open media discourse in the country, in practice they failed to exhibit a willingness to tolerate independent news outlets in 2003.
President Bashar al-Assad’s first months in office in 2000 witnessed important press freedom gains that included the launching of private and party-run newspapers and the emergence of a more assertive state-run press. But these developments were undermined by a subsequent government crackdown on dissent and pro-democracy activism that had blossomed following Bashar’s ascent to power. In 2003, the appointment of Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari did not improve matters, and now the situation for the press does not differ greatly from the heavily censored, pro-regime media that prevailed under Bashar’s ironfisted father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
In April, Al-Domari, a satirical weekly owned by renowned political cartoonist Ali Farzat, ceased publication under government pressure, including the state-owned printing press’s refusal to print the paper, attempts by state officials to review issues before their distribution, and, according to Farzat, government pressure on advertisers to withhold ads from his paper. Farzat resumed publishing Al-Domari in July, but the state-controlled distributor refused to circulate the paper, forcing Al-Domari staff to distribute issues on their own. Soon thereafter, the government canceled Al-Domari‘s license, saying it had violated the country’s press law by not publishing for three consecutive months. The decision to close the newspaper was apparently triggered by the unprecedented boldness of the paper’s last issue, which featured articles criticizing the country’s repressive press law and the overall lack of press freedom in Syria.
The controversial press law under which Al-Domari was closed demonstrates the government’s intent to keep the emergence of independent media in check. The law, issued in 2001, enables the government to suspend newspapers for up to six months for publishing “falsehoods” and “fabricated reports” 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).
The government took some symbolic steps to promote a freer press. For instance, in July, the pan-Arab London-based daily Al-Hayat reported that the government formed a committee charged with encouraging greater diversity of voices in the state-run press. The paper also reported that authorities permitted distribution of a Lebanese-licensed newspaper run by Syrians that contained a blunt assessment of the country’s press freedom record.
However, with few exceptions this spirit of tolerance failed to translate into improved news coverage. State papers remained bland and unflinchingly supportive of the regime. Other private and party newspapers that have won permission to launch in recent years are politically toothless. In 2002, the government took the auspicious step of licensing private radio stations. A handful has since been launched, but they are barred from airing news or political programming. Television remains state controlled.
Although local media struggle under state-imposed limits, Syrians have chipped away at the wall of fear erected under Hafez al-Assad’s 30-year authoritarian rule, and today some citizens publicly express views that would have landed them in jail previously. Lebanese newspapers and other pan-Arab media remain the preferred forum for Syrians to conduct open political discussion and voice criticism of the government. Syrian dissidents have appeared on programs on satellite channels such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera.
The government relented in two press freedom cases in 2003. In late May, Syrian officials released jailed journalist Ibrahim Hemaidi, the Damascus bureau chief of Al-Hayat. Hemaidi was detained on December 23, 2002, after writing an article discussing the government’s alleged preparations for a possible influx of Iraqi refugees in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. He was charged with “publishing false information,” which carries a sentence of up to three years in jail if convicted. The case was still pending, though authorities did not appear eager to pursue it. And in July, a military court dismissed a case against lawyer Haithem Maaleh, director of the Human Rights Society in Syria, and four others charged with distributing unauthorized copies of a human rights magazine.
The government is the sole Internet provider and restricts access to politically sensitive content. Local human rights groups reported cases during 2003 of Syrians who were arrested for passing on politically sensitive news and information abroad via e-mail.