An ongoing state crackdown against pro-democracy activists continued to stunt what were once promising media reforms introduced in 2000 by Syria's young president, Bashar al-Assad. For a short time, it appeared that Bashar, who replaced his authoritarian father, the late Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, would inspire a more liberal media and greater government transparency. After taking office, Bashar authorized the country's first private and non-Baath Party newspapers in nearly 40 years. In 2000 and 2001, three new party papers and two private papers were introduced in the country.

But a crackdown that began in early 2001 continued and has derailed much of the progress. During 2002, the government prosecuted and jailed several pro-democracy activists who criticized the government and advocated political reform. One of them, 71-year-old Communist Party leader Riyadh al-Turk, who had previously served 18 years in solitary confinement for his opposition views, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for "attacking the constitution" and "inciting insurrection" in statements he made criticizing Hafez al-Assad's rule.

The state-owned papers that had exhibited uncharacteristic panache in their opinion pages in 2000 today reflect the rigid style of previous years, displaying unwavering support for the government. Although the satirical weekly Al-Domari has mocked officials and some government policies, it, like all newly licensed private and party papers, largely avoids criticizing the regime.

In 2002, the government licensed at least three additional private publications – an insurance magazine, an advertising publication, and a political-cultural magazine called Abyad wa Aswad (Black and White), which is run by the son of the country's army chief of staff. Yet no publication appeared poised to practice hard-hitting journalism. In January, the Cabinet approved a regulation allowing private radio stations to broadcast, but they are barred from airing news or political programming.

The passage of a new press law, first announced by Bashar in 2001, dashed all hopes of a media revival. The law maps out an array of restrictions against media professionals, including requiring periodicals to obtain licenses from the prime minister, who can deny any application not in the "public interest." Publications can be suspended for up to six months for violating content bans, and the prime minister can revoke the licenses of repeat offenders. The new legislation also prohibits publishing "falsehoods" and "fabricated reports" – crimes punishable by one to three years in prison and by fines of between 500,000 and 1 million lira (US$9,500 and US$18,900).

Those charged with libel or defamation face fines and up to one year in jail. The law also allows authorities to censor foreign publications and force journalists to divulge their sources.

Authorities harassed journalists on numerous occasions during 2002. Haytham Maaleh, a human rights activist and lawyer, was charged in September before a military court, along with three others, for distributing unauthorized copies of a human rights magazine. Authorities accused the men, all members of a Syrian human rights group, of belonging to an illegal organization and of spreading "false information."

In July, the London-based Al Quds al-Arabi reported that intelligence agents summoned Marwan Habash, a writer and former minister of the Baath Party's regional leadership, for questioning after he had published an article calling for strengthened civil society in Syria. And in December, Ibrahim Hemaidi, Damascus bureau chief for the London-based Pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, was arrested for an article he wrote alleging that Syrian officials were preparing for an influx of Iraqi refugees in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

While local media remain restricted, an increasing number of Syrians have access to satellite dishes, enabling them to watch international and Pan-Arab news channels. Internet access continues to expand; the country boasts dozens of Internet cafés. The government is Syria's sole Internet provider and blocks content about Israel, sex, and Syria's human rights record, as well as sites that allow access to free Internet e-mail. Still, Web surfers appear to have little trouble evading the restrictions by using proxy sites or dialing into Internet service providers outside the country.

December 23
Ibrahim Hemaidi, Al-Hayat IMPRISONED

Hemaidi, the Damascus bureau chief for the influential London-based Pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, was detained by Syrian police in connection with a December 20 article he wrote discussing the Syrian government's alleged preparations for a possible influx of Iraqi refugees in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. The Syrian government denied the report, and Al-Hayat published a statement from the authorities to that effect on December 24.

On December 27, the official Syrian news agency, SANA, acknowledged Hemaidi's detention and said that he is accused of "publishing false information," which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million Syrian pounds (US$19,500).

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