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Inspired by their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours, Syrians began to express their desire for democratic change in March 2011. The government of President Bashar Al-Assad immediately launched a bloody crackdown on the protest movement, which was tentative in the beginning. Six months later, a point of no return was passed. Syrians no longer aspire only to democratic reform, they are now seeking the government’s downfall.
Despite the emergence of privately-owned media outlets, the Baath party has always maintained a stranglehold on news content. The return of Syria to the international stage in 2008 did not change things. The Web has not escaped censorship, with more than 200 sites made inaccessible.
In 2005, the Information Ministry began recasting the press laws to include the Internet. Since 2007, those who run Internet cafes are legally obliged to record all comments posted by customers on discussion forums. Late last year, the cabinet approved a bill on Internet communication, drawn up by Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri and designed to restrict further the flow of information on the Web. Since the start of the popular protest movement in mid-March, abuses of media workers have been on the increase. The authorities have prevented journalists from attending demonstration in person in an attempt to prevent them from covering the protest. Many Syrian journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tortured.
There are daily instances of physical attacks. Foreign reporters, such as those working for the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies, have been arrested and expelled.
The Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera announced on 27 April that it was suspending indefinitely its activities throughout Syria because of intimidation and threats against it staff. The station’s Syrian employees have been the target of threats by the authorities and its premises have been pelted with stones and eggs. At one point, virtually no visas were being granted, but foreign journalists are once again being allowed entry, although only in a trickle.
In addition, Syrians and foreigners living in the country are afraid of talking to the media. Syrian authorities are thus able to impose a media blackout on demonstrations and abuses committed by security forces as a means of subduing protests.
The Web is monitored particularly closely, with the cyber-army recruited by the government playing a bigger and bigger role. Pro-Assad propaganda, the spread of false information, the hacking of email and social networking accounts, phishing etc – a veritable information and disinformation war is being waged in Syria.
Against this background, Assad issued a decree on 28 August on media law as part of reforms designed to stamp out anti-government protests. But how credible is this measure, which claims to be a banner of liberalisation of the press? In a schizophrenic manner, the decree called for “respect for the fundamental freedoms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in international conventions”, yet a government crackdown had been in progress for six months.
The statement in article 11 that “any attack on a journalist will be treated as an attack on a Syrian government official” is delusional in view of what has been happening on the ground.
President Assad is regarded as one of the world’s 38 “Predators of press freedom”.
Updated 1 September 2011
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