Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
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The Syrian government continued to place severe restrictions on press freedom in 2007. Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, a constellation of repressive laws restricts such rights in practice. The 1962 Emergency Law supersedes all constitutional protections for the press and broadly mandates the censorship of letters, publications, broadcast media, and other forms of communication. In addition, the 2001 Press Law allows for broad control over all print media and forbids reporting on topics deemed sensitive by the government, such as issues of “national security” or “national unity,” as well as the publication of “inaccurate” information. Violations of the Press Law are punishable by fines of up to US$20,000 and prison terms of from one to three years. Decree No. 6 of 1965 criminalizes “publishing news aimed at shaking the people’s confidence in the revolution,” along with other legislation that criminalizes “opposition to the revolution, its goals, or socialism.” The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance are both responsible for censoring domestic and imported foreign press as well as books and films. During a June 2005 conference of the ruling Baath Party, the Ministry of Information announced its plans to introduce a new Press Law; however, old legislation remained in place at year’s end. Syria’s first independent press freedom organization, Hurriyat, created in 2005, ceased operations in 2007 as two of its founders were in prison and a third had left the country.
Security services detained eight journalists and online writers over the course of 2007, and dozens of other people who had criticized the regime or were suspected of opposition to the government were detained. Syrian human rights organizations reported that security services held Abd al-Razzaq Eid, an academic and prominent civil rights advocate, for 13 hours based on articles written for Beirut’s Al-Safeer. The domestic intelligence service held Muhanad Abdel al-Rahman and Alaa al-Din Hamdoun, two journalists reportedly affiliated with an exiled opposition group, for the first weeks of March before releasing them on March 27. The two were later arrested in August and charged with “undermining the prestige of the state.” According to the U.S. State Department, both were released on September 25 as part of the Eid al-Fitr amnesty. Regionally based journalists were also not immune to the harassment of Syrian state officials, the Syrian Organization for Human Rights reported. Security officials detained Ubayd Muhammed, a reporter for Kurdistan Satellite TV, and his wife for two weeks as they were trying to leave the country on March 23. Muhammed alleged that he was tortured in custody. The International Press Institute reported that an Iraqi journalist for Japanese Jiji Press was arrested, assaulted, and expelled from Syria in August based on his coverage of the presidential referendum. A number of journalists were sentenced to prison during the year. Journalist Michel Kilo, imprisoned since May 2006, received three additional years in May 2007 for “weakening national sentiment” after he (along with 300 other intellectuals) signed the Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut statement calling for improved relations between the countries. Lawyer Anwar al-Bunni was also sentenced to five years in April for “spreading false news” based on a letter he submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights violations occurring in Syria.
Except for a handful of radio stations that do not broadcast news or report on political issues, Syria’s radio and television outlets are all state owned. Private and political party–affiliated newspapers sometimes publish mild criticism of the government and report more freely on social and economic issues. Newspapers such as Al-Watan and Al-Iqtisad, owned by businessmen with close connections to the government, occasionally criticize the government’s performance, but within limits. The political daily Baladna, owned by the son of the former head of intelligence, was banned for 47 days in May after it published a cartoon satirizing Syria’s legislative assembly. The Ministry of Information bans foreign news publications if they contain material the government deems a threat to public order or national security. The London-based, Saudi-funded, regional daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat was unavailable for most of 2007. All Kurdish-language publications are prohibited but were reportedly available. Satellite dishes are common, and the government makes no attempt to interfere with satellite broadcasts. Syrian television has increasingly broached topics formerly considered taboo and conducted interviews with opposition figures.
Despite the government’s aggressive crackdown on the internet in recent years, critical journalists have increasingly used this electronic medium to voice their dissent. Close to 8 percent of Syrians accessed the internet in 2007, a slight increase over the previous year. The government censors the internet and monitors its use based on the Press Law, the Emergency Law, and the penal code. Websites are often blocked by Syria’s three internet service providers, although some users employ a range of tools to circumvent this censorship. On July 25, Communications and Technology Minister Amr Salem issued a decree requiring websites to publish the names and e-mail addresses of anyone writing on their sites, threatening to ban websites that failed to comply. Soon after, the ministry blocked access to DamasPost, a popular news website, after a commentator identified only as “Jamal” accused prominent journalists of nepotism. On June 7, military intelligence officers detained Karim Arbaji, moderator of the website akhawia.net, a popular site for Syrian youth to discuss social and political issues, and held him incommunicado. His whereabouts were still unknown at year’s end. On June 30, military intelligence officers arrested blogger Tareq Bayasi and also held him incommunicado throughout the year, apparently for criticizing Syria’s security services online. On September 23, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced blogger Ali Zein al-Abideen Mej’an to two years in prison for “undertaking acts or writing or speeches unauthorized by the government…that spoil its ties with a foreign state,” for comments posted online that criticized Saudi Arabia.