- Population: 17,381,000
- Internet users: 220,000 (2003)
- Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 11 euros
- DAI*: 0.28
- Situation**: very serious
Hopes that Bashar el-Assad's installation as president in 2000 would bring improvements for free expression have been dashed. The government limits Internet access to a privileged minority, filters online content and monitors e-mail closely. Two people are currently in prison for posting information online or just e-mailing content taken from a banned site.
Syria's only two Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are the post office and the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), both state-controlled. Private connections at home are reserved for people who can prove they use the Internet for professional reasons (such as doctors, lawyers and businessmen). It is the SCS that decides who gets a connection.
So most Internet users must go to public points of access. Syria has many cybercafés, mostly in Damascus. You do not have to show ID to use them. Rates run from 0.50 to 1.50 euros an hour.
Surveillance and censorship
The SCS intercepts e-mail in order to identify and monitor dissidents. For this reason, web-based e-mail services such as Hotmail have been made inaccessible. This forces Internet users to turn to the e-mail services controlled by the Syrian ISPs. One Internet user, Abdel Rahman Shagouri (see box) was arrested in February 2003 as a result of e-mail surveillance.
However, censorship affects a relatively limited number of websites. The sites of Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International, for example, are accessible. So are those of the BBC and arabnews.com. Furthermore, the authorities do not block sites such a anonymizer.com, which means Internet users can easily evade the SCS filters.
The authorities concentrate their blocking efforts on publications dealing directly with Syrian politics such as www.thisisyria.net, as well as Kurdish, pro-Israeli and pornographic sites. The Internet users get an error message saying: "Access refused by the control list."
Two Kurdish sites, www.amude.com and www.qamislo.com, were rendered inaccessible in mid-March 2004. Hosted in Germany, they are a major source of information for the Kurdish diaspora and foreign news media, which often pick up their photos and video clips. According to amude.com's editor, Siruan Hadsch-Hossein, the Syrian authorities blocked them by blocking their domain names. As a result, his site initially remained accessible to anyone using the alternative address, www.amude.net. Then this address was also blocked at the end of March. Massoud Hamid, a journalism student arrested on 24 July 2003 (see box), was a contributor to amude.com.
Two imprisoned Internet users
- Abdel Rahman Shagouri was arrested on 23 February 2003 at a checkpoint near Damascus for e-mailing a newsletter, Levant News, from a banned website, www.thisissyria.net. He is being held in Saidnaya prison near Damascus, where he has reportedly been tortured. His indictment says the articles he sent via the Internet "endangered Syria's reputation and security."
- Massoud Hamid, 29, a journalism student and a member of Syria's Kurdish minority, was arrested during an exam at Damascus university on 24 July 2003. The reason for his arrest was said to have been the posting of photographs of a peaceful Kurdish demonstration in Damascus on www.amude.com. He is being held in Adra prison near Damascus and has allegedly been mistreated.
- The Arabic-language site of the Arabic-language governmental daily Teshreen provides access to the English-language governmental newspaper Syria Times - www.teshreen.com
- Online English-language newspaper covering Arab countries - www.arabnews.com
* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).
** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.