Diplomatically-isolated Syria keeps tight control of all news. In 2004, the authorities gave some ground and took some back, alternating harsh repression with a few slight signs of opening-up. Dissidents have been encouraged by the changes in neighbouring Iraq and are increasingly pressing for political liberalisation.

The official policy of friendship towards Israel and the United States did not pay off in 2004. Relations with Washington deteriorated in May after the US imposed sanctions on Syria, accusing it of supporting terrorism. In September, the United States and France pushed a resolution through the UN Security Council demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon. France several times criticised Syrian interference in the re-election by parliament of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud for another three years.

Internal opposition movements, intellectuals and human rights groups launched petitions for political reform and to free political prisoners. Even the Communist Party (PCS), a member of the ruling coalition led by the Baath Party, found the regime's reforms inadequate.

"The debate is growing, hundreds of political prisoners are being freed and special economic courts are being abolished but achievements are few," said the PCS weekly, An-Nur. Writer and political scientist Michel Kiko said after the US invasion of Iraq that "a wind of change is blowing in the country. People are less afraid and more enthusiastic about democracy."

Arrests and harassment of human rights activists and students meanwhile increased. Aktham Nayssé, president of the Syrian Committees to Defend Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights (CDDS), was briefly arrested in May for urging people to sign a petition calling for an end to the state of emergency in force since the Baath Party seized power in 1963.

Regime-tailored news

New people were brought into the government – officials in their 40s close to the young president and trained in European and North American universities – to clean up extensive corruption.

It was a sign of a "new spirit in the administration," said Syrian journalist Shaaban Abboud in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar. "But it's very hard to know who and how many the reformers are and what their influence is and even harder to know if they'll keep their jobs." So it was risky interpreting the significance of the October appointment of Mahdi Dakhlallah, former editor of the official Baath Party paper Al-Baas, as information minister.

Very little changed in the media scene during the year. It is still impossible to know for sure how many people were killed in clashes in the northeastern town of Qamishli in March because the authorities have locked any independent investigation. Witnesses said a football match turned into a riot after spectators from Iraq chanted slogans in favour of ex-President Saddam Hussein. Several dozen people were reportedly killed in the fighting and subsequent police intervention.

The Baath Party has complete control of all media through a 2001 decree that bans any attempt to question "principles in Syria that nobody must undermine, such as the interests of the Syrian people, the Baath Party, national unity, the armed forces and the policies of [the late] President Hafez al-Assad." Journalists "reporting false news and forging documents" can be jailed for between one and three years (see account by Maha Hassan).

Yunes Khalaf, of the government daily Al-Thawra (Revolution), was reportedly sacked in March for reporting on pollution of the water supply in the northeastern province of Al-Hassaka. A second article and an open letter to prime minister Mohammad Naji Otri, which appeared in the privately-owned Arab-language paper Economic Affairs, brought him telephoned death threats.

In November, Luai Hussein who, like many Syrian journalists, prefers to write in the Lebanese press, was visited at his home in Lattakia, 400 km north of Damascus, by two agents of the feared "mukhabarat" secret police who gave him a letter from the interior ministry forbidding him to write articles.

The print media, as well as radio and TV (which is a state monopoly), is obliged to echo the government line. A law passed in early 2002 allowed the setting up of private radio stations but they were only authorised to broadcast music and advertising. The only critical newspaper, Addomari, launched in February 2001, was forced to close two years later after constant bureaucratic harassment.

Resident foreign reporters in Syria are also under surveillance and have great difficulty getting their annual accreditation renewed. The pan-Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera has never been allowed to open a permanent office. Many Internet websites are censored in Syria.

A journalist imprisoned

The state security court sentenced photographer and journalism student Massoud Hamid to three years in prison on 10 October for "belonging to a secret organisation." A Kurdish Syrian, he had been arrested on 24 July 2003 at Damascus University a month after posting on a German-based Kurdish-language website, amude.com, photos of a peaceful demonstration of Kurds in front of the UNICEF offices in Damascus. He is being held in Adra prison (near Damascus) and has reportedly been badly treated.

In 2004...

  • 1 journalist was in prison
  • 5 were arrested
  • and 2 media censored

Personal account

"All newspapers are mouthpieces of the ruling Baath Party"

Maha Hassan is a young Syrian-Kurdish journalist and writer who has gone into exile after being banned from publishing in her own country for several years.

You have to be a member of the Baath Party if you want to be a newspaper editor in Syria. It doesn't matter much if you're not fit to do the job. Party membership is the only qualification needed, which means any party member can become a journalist.

Damascus has only three official newspapers: Teshrin (October in Arabic), Al-Baath (Rebirth) and Al-Thawra (Revolution), which are printed by the lone government printing press. Several provincial papers are published – Al-Jamahir (The Masses) in Aleppo, Al-Wahda (Unity) in Lattakia, Al-Aruba (Arabness) in Homs, Al-Furat (The Euphrates) in Deir az-Zor, and a sports magazine.

Syria has had no free media since the Baath Party came to power in March 1963. All newspapers are the party's mouthpieces and are linked to it some way. Yet Syria has a proud history of newspaper diversity. During the 1918-20 Arab government, 54 daily papers were appearing.

Under the French Mandate, there were more than 180 newspapers and after independence in 1946, statistics showed one paper for every 50,000 inhabitants. Since then, the country's press has shrunk dramatically.

Journalists working for the official papers are rarely jailed, since their work is read beforehand by the censorship office and they censor themselves anyway. They all know what they cannot mention in print. The more a journalist praises the government and the party, the more he or she avoids reprimand or danger.

Hopes of more freedom rose when the young President Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2001. But a new press law turned out to be a further block to press freedom, as it allowed the regime to directly control independent media.

The government was given the power to refuse operating licences to new publications without having to give a reason. The new law also provided for three years imprisonment and a fine of a million Syrian pounds (22,000 euros) for any article criticising the government.

Syrians have little confidence in their own media and are keen fans of satellite TV news stations such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) and the US station Al-Hurra to find out what is happening in their own country.

One example was when the government did not immediately report a bomb attack and shooting on 27 April 2004 near a former UN building in the Mazzeh neighbourhood of Damascus since it needed time to come up with a politically-correct version of the incident. The satellite TV stations were the first to report it.

December 2004


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