As you celebrate the 10th anniversary of your ascent to power this month, we are writing to draw your attention to conditions that continue to undermine press freedom in Syria. In 10 years, conditions for the media have hardly improved, with the government still deciding who is and isn’t a journalist, filtering the Internet, and imprisoning reporters for their critical work.
A decade ago, standing in front of the Syrian Parliament, in a speech you delivered after taking the constitutional oath, you said that “constructive criticism” is a central pillar of developing Syria. In 2007, when you were sworn in for your second term, you noted that the success of reform is linked with “providing citizens with the correct information.” The mission of journalists is to provide the information and criticism you named.
A vigorous, hopeful debate took place as soon as you took on the presidency. Journalists were at the forefront of these discussions in what came to be known as the “Damascus Spring.” Unfortunately, it was not long before critical voices were silenced and many prominent journalists, like al-Hayat’s Ibrahim Hemaidi, were sentenced to prison. (Hemaidi was arrested in December 2002 and released in May 2003.)
- We call on you to intervene to secure the release of Ali al-Abdallah, a freelance journalist who is being held despite completing 30-month prison sentence for a critical article he wrote while in prison.
- We ask that you instruct the proper authorities to drop criminal charges against two investigative journalists, Bassam Ali and Suhaila Ismail. They are currently facing a military trial in connection to reports they wrote in 2005 and 2006 on corruption in the Public Company for Fertilizers in Syria. They are facing prosecution despite the fact that the government itself saw it fit to dismiss the head of the company as a result of the malfeasance unearthed in their investigations.
It is time for you to amend the country’s Press Law and to end the use of anti-state provisions in the Penal Code against journalists. In 2001, CPJ welcomed the legalization of private media in Syria, which had been banned since 1963, but we were disturbed by the excessive restrictions placed on journalists in the Press Law passed in the same year. The Press Law gives the government sweeping powers over printed publications.
- Article 12, for instance, requires all private publications to be licensed by the government, a process that is open-ended, nontransparent, and arbitrary. Applications can be rejected if the proposed publication is perceived as threatening Syria's "national interest," a vaguely construed term that has repeatedly been interpreted in a politicized fashion.
- Licenses are routinely and arbitrarily revoked as was the case with Domari, a commercially successful private satirical weekly, in 2003. Article 28 of the same law provides the minister of information with unbridled powers to decide who is and is not a journalist and who can obtain a press card.
- Chapter 4 of the law penalizes publishers and printing presses for “breach of security or sovereignty of the country and its integrity,” with prison terms, fines, and closures. The vague definition of the crime has historically been used to silence critical outlets. Article 51 sets long prison terms and massive fines—three years in prison and 1 million Syrian pounds (US$21,500) in fines, for "spreading false information."
In 2007, you acknowledged “many complaints from the media and others about their dissatisfaction with the current Press Law.” At the time you indicated that the Ministry of Information was in the process of recommending ways to improve the law. We urge you to ensure that long-stalled amendments to the restrictive Press Law are enacted, in particular ones that address the shortcomings outlined above.
We have also
documented with great concern the fact that journalists in Syria are often
charged under loosely worded anti-state provisions in the Penal Code,
particularly Article 278 (“acts, writings, or speech unauthorized by the
government that expose Syria to the danger of belligerent acts or that disrupt
Syria’s ties with foreign states”), Article 285 (“weakening national sentiment
or awaking racial or sectarian tensions”), and Article 286 (“spreading false or
exaggerated information”). We call on you to ensure that these vaguely defined
provisions not be used to prosecute journalists.
It is also time for your government to abandon censorship of Internet content. As the former chairman of the Syrian Computer Society and a known computer and Internet enthusiast, we ask that you bring to an end the state’s censorship of Internet content. According to the Syrian Center for Media and Free Expression, 241 news and information websites were blocked in Syria in 2009. CPJ research indicates that the total number of blocked websites is far higher. A recent CPJ report found that Syria was among the 10 worst countries to be a blogger in 2009.
Lastly, we ask that your government end the routine practice of instituting travel bans against journalists. News reports indicate that in 2008, Lafa Khaled, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera, and Mazen Darwish, the director of a local press freedom group, were banned from travelling. CPJ research indicates that a large number of critical journalists are prevented from leaving Syria. We ask you to lift all active travel bans on journalists.
Mr. President, we urge you to take action now to allow for a lively, critical media environment in Syria, in print and online. Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your reply.