An ongoing state crackdown on political dissent further dulled hopes that President Bashar al-Assad would loosen the shackles on the country’s news media. Bashar promised greater media openness four years ago when he assumed power following the death of his father, the ironfisted Hafez al-Assad. In his first months in office, he injected new life into the country’s moribund, state-controlled media by licensing the country’s first nonstate newspapers in decades; allowing turgid, state-owned dailies to show a critical edge; and expanding Internet access across the country.
But most of those gains have been rolled back in a government crackdown on media discourse and the nascent civil-society movement. Authorities set sharp limits in 2001, when Bashar announced a press law requiring periodicals to obtain licenses from the prime minister, who can deny any application not in the “public interest.” Publications may be suspended for up to six months for violating content bans, and the prime minister may revoke the licenses of repeat offenders. Journalists who publish what are deemed “falsehoods” or “fabricated reports” may be imprisoned for up to three years and fined up to 1 million lira (US$18,900). Those charged with libel or defamation face fines and up to one year in jail.
The absence of truly independent newspapers would seem to obviate the need for such restrictive legislation. The country’s most aggressive paper—the satirical weekly Al-Domari (The Lamplighter)—closed in 2003 after enduring repeated government harassment.
The remaining private and party newspapers are largely indistinguishable from state-run periodicals in their uncritical, sometimes hagiographic coverage of Bashar. Even government officials and state journalists acknowledge the weak state of the media. Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan reportedly remarked that Syrian newspapers were “unreadable” and urged more assertive coverage. A small measure of open coverage followed in late 2004, with newspapers publishing occasional articles calling for political reform, criticizing emergency rule, and highlighting the harassment of journalists.
Overall, though, authorities showed few signs that they were prepared to tolerate sustained open discourse. Local and international rights groups reported the cases of several writers and online activists whom authorities had detained or questioned over articles for Web sites. In November, the Ministry of Interior ordered Louay Hussein, a journalist who contributes to the Lebanese dailies Al-Nahar and Al-Safir, to stop writing. Official anger over a recent column about Hussein’s difficulties in renewing his Syrian passport was believed to have triggered the punishment.
The government exerts control over the foreign press through visas and the accreditation process and assigns official minders to some reporters. In March, security forces briefly detained a New York Times correspondent and photographer and a BBC journalist who were covering a protest in front of Parliament in Damascus against the government’s long-standing use of emergency laws. The journalists were not charged.
The state also owns the country’s main broadcast media, whose uncritical coverage staunchly reflects the government’s views. Since 2002, the government has allowed the creation of a number of private radio stations, but they are barred from airing news or political content. Satellite dishes, though officially banned, are widely available, and Syrians use them to watch a variety of Arabic and Western news channels.
The government continues to control Internet access closely. Internet service is administered by a state company that uses filter technology to block what are considered objectionable Web sites, including newspapers, political organizations, dissident news sites, and human rights groups critical of the government. Sites about Israel are also blocked. Internet users who passed on political news and information