Domain name: .sy
Population: 21,762,978
Internet-users: 3,565,000
Average hourly charge for one hour's connection at a cybercafé: 1.4 to 2 US$
Average monthly salary: around 1,079 US$
Number of imprisoned netizens: 4

Syria is reinforcing its censorship of troublesome topics on the Web and tracking netizens who dare to express themselves freely on it. As a result, social networks have been particularly targeted by omnipresent surveillance. The promised technological improvements are slow to materialize. The authorities' distrust of the potential for dissident online mobilization may be playing a role in this delay.

Controlled Internet growth

The number of Syrian surfers has soared in the last ten years. Over 16.5% of the population uses the Internet, and conditions for access have been facilitated. Today, anyone can buy a pre-paid Internet access card and get connected. There is no longer a requirement to provide personal data since these are already registered when Syrians acquire their land phone lines. The limited number of ADSL or 3G is probably due to their high cost. Satellite connections are prohibited without the authorities' express permission.

The officials have centralized Internet surveillance by entrusting it to two government bodies: the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) and the Syrian Information Organization (SIO), which controls bandwidth. Since 2005, several private Internet service providers have emerged, but they are far from being independent. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information claims that while Internet access has boomed, the infrastructure has not improved much since Internet service became available in the country, thus leading to problems with overload, connection speed slowdowns and frequent power outages. The Ministry of Communications and Technology announced a "global development and reform of the Internet" strategy which, in reality, has yet to be implemented. The quality of the cable connecting Syria via Cyprus needs to be improved, as does the bandwidth capacity. A new trans-ocean cable could be set up.

The Syrian government, which for had long been minimizing its Web presence, has completely reversed course: propaganda sites and those promoting the official position are proliferating, such as the Syrian News Agency (SANA), or the Syria News, Al-Gamal, Sada Suria and Sham Press websites.

The ThunderCache software program is used by the STE and the SIO to ensure centralized censorship of the Web. Its distributor, Platinum Inc., defines it as being used "to protect Web communications against risks from spyware, viruses, inappropriate Web surfing, instant messaging (IM), video streaming and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, while actually improving Web performance." It conducts website surveillance and filtering by searching for keywords "banned" by the authorities.

Filtering of specific content

Censorship in Syria has intensified since 2009. Over 200 sites are currently blocked. The content affected concerns political criticism, religious matters, websites deemed "obscene," those dealing with the Kurd minority and Israel-based websites. Also targeted are opposition party sites, those of certain Lebanese media and independent news websites. The Syrian government justifies such censorship by emphasizing the need to prevent religious discord and Israeli infiltration.

Censorship is particularly targeting social networks and blog platforms in an effort to prevent dissidents from getting organized and recruiting new members using the new media. Blogspot and Maktoob are blocked. YouTube has been blocked since August 2007 after videos were circulated denouncing the crackdown on the Kurd minority. Wikipedia's Arabic version was blocked from May 2008 to February 2009. Amazon and Skype are also inaccessible.

Prison sentences in exchange for free expression of views on the Internet

At least four netizens are currently behind bars. They are meant to serve as examples to other Internet users, who prefer self-censorship to loss of their freedom over a few online comments. The authorities have several legislative weapons at their disposal: the Penal Code, the 1962 State of Emergency Law, and the repressive 2001 Press Code amended in 2005 to cover online publications.

In May 2008, blogger Tariq Biassi ( was sentenced to three years in prison for having posted an article on an Internet forum criticizing Syrian security agencies. He was found guilty of "spreading false information" and "weakening national sentiment" by virtue of Articles 285 and 286 of the Syrian Penal Code. He had denied all of the charges and assured authorities that the published comments were not his, because he shared his telephone line with six other subscribers, including a cybercafé. In September 2009, blogger Kareem Arbaji, who is also the Akhawiya forum webmaster, received a three-year prison term for "publishing mendacious information liable to weaken the nation's morale." He had been arrested in 2007, and is said to have been tortured while being detained. On April 9, 2008, writer and poet Firas Saad was sentenced to four years in prison based on the same charges as Tariq Biassi. On May 6, 2008, Syrian government security agents arrested Habib Saleh, a writer and a cyber-dissident.

Closely watched surfers

The authorities never relax their surveillance efforts: They eventually identified Tariq Biassi by retracing the origin of his Internet connection. Since July 25, 2007, owners of Internet websites are required to maintain the personal data of anyone who posts online articles and comments.

Police raids of cybercafés are common. Security agents who catch Web users in the act of "excessive surfing" suggest that they "take a coffee break" with them – their expression for taking them in "for an interrogation." The café managers have to keep a record of their customers' personal data and a list of the websites they consult, and must alert authorities if they observe any illegal activities. Users even have to provide their fathers' and mothers' names. In 2009, a Menassat website contributor was arrested in a cybercafé and briefly questioned.

Emergence of online pressure groups

Many Internet users are mastering the use of censorship circumvention tools. Some use Lebanese or Saudi Arabian servers to access the Internet. When the authorities start to block the most often-used proxy servers, others are created.

Facebook was blocked when Syrians began to make friends with Israelis. However, the surfers are now using proxies to gain access to it. The social network, which is very popular in the country, hosts hundreds of groups with hundreds – or even thousands – of members, devoted to tourism, business, sports, technology and entertainment. Facing pressure from the general population, authorities are examining the possibility of unblocking Facebook.

Online pressure groups have formed to express their economic or social demands. One online campaign that opposes a bill on amending the existing personal statute law seems to have played a crucial role in the government's decision to abandon it. Bloggers launched a plea for a boycott of cell phone service providers because of their high cost and declining service quality. Mobilization efforts were also made on behalf of imprisoned bloggers. Despite the crackdown, courageous netizens are capable of organizing themselves. They are counting on the upcoming technological improvements – essential to the country's economic future – to provide them with more options for circumventing censorship and ensuring its failure.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.