Sun, Oct 03, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Online media get a bitter taste of freedom in Syria

Despite tight controls, such as a ban on Facebook, many Syrians, including the president, are utilizing social networking sites

By Robert Worth  /  NY Times News Service, DAMASCUS

Earlier last month, a graphic video of Syrian teachers beating their young students appeared on Facebook. Although Facebook is officially banned in Syria, the video quickly went viral, with Syrian bloggers stoking public anger until the story was picked up by the pan-Arab media.

Finally, the Syrian Education Ministry issued a statement saying the teachers had been reassigned to desk jobs. The episode was a rare example of the way Syrians using Facebook and blogs can win a tenuous measure of freedom within the country’s tightly controlled media scene, where any criticism of the government, however oblique, can lead to years in prison.

“We have a little bit of freedom,” said Khaled al-Ekhetyar, a 29-year-old journalist for a Web site whose business card shows a face with hands covering up the eyes and mouth. “We can say things that can’t be said in print.”

However, that slim margin is threatened by an ever-present fog of fear and intimidation and some journalists fear that it could soon be snuffed out. A draft law regulating online media would clamp down on Syrian bloggers and other journalists, forcing them to register as syndicate members and submit their writing for review. Other Arab countries regularly jail journalists who express dissident views, but Syria may be the most restrictive of all.

Most of the Syrian media is still owned by the state. Privately owned media outlets became legal in 2001, as the socialist economy slowly began to liberalize following the accession of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, much of the sector is owned by members of the Syrian “oligarchy” — relatives of Assad and other top government officials. All of it is subject to intimidation and heavy-handed control.

“The first level is censorship,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, the founder of All4Syria.info, the independent Web site where Ekhetyar works. “The second level is when they send you statements and force you to publish them.”

Like many other journalists and dissidents, Abdel Nour has left the country and now lives abroad.

The basic “red lines” are well known: No criticism of the president and his family or the security services, no touching delicate issues like Syria’s Kurdish minority or the Alawites, a religious minority to which Assad belongs. Foreign journalists who violate these rules are regularly banned from the country (a fact that constrains coverage of Syria in this and other newspapers).

However, the exact extent of what is forbidden is left deliberately unclear and that vagueness encourages fear and self-censorship, many journalists here say. A 19-year-old female high school student and blogger, Tal al-Mallohi, was arrested late last year and remains in prison. Her blog had encouraged the Syrian government to do more for the Palestinians, but it scarcely amounted to real criticism and the authorities have not given any reason for her detention.

A number of bloggers have been arrested for expressing views deemed critical of the Syrian government or even other Arab governments, under longstanding laws that criminalize “weakening national sentiment” and other broadly defined offenses.

Others have been jailed for jokes. One blogger, Osama Kario, wrote a parody in 2007 of the famous “three Arab No’s” refusing any concession to Israel (no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel).

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