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Media Rights Advocates Refused Entry

Syrian journalists have expressed little surprise that a Reporters Without Borders delegation was denied entry to the country, but they believe the decision was a mistake.

The delegation from the advocacy group included its secretary-general Robert Menard, who is a vocal critic of the Syrian government, French television journalist Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and photographer Francois Daburon.

Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, said in a statement that the delegation was refused entry at the Masnaa border crossing with Lebanon on September 13. The government, it said, “controls the movements of foreign journalists in Syria with great care in order to prevent any coverage of its human rights abuses”.

The organisation had wanted to meet the families of imprisoned journalists. It reported that four journalists and five cyber-dissidents are currently in jail in Syria.

“I would have been surprised if they had let them in,” said one journalist and human rights advocate in Damascus who has reported on press violations for Reporters Without Borders and other international organisations.

“If the authorities agree to deal with those types of organisations and let them in, it means they are recognising their role in addressing human rights violations. The authorities continue to reject any [foreign] intervention on local matters.”

The journalist said the government had been clamping down on civil society recently, a fact that would make it even more harder for an international rights group to enter Syria.

Bahia Mardini, a Damascus-based reporter with the news website Elaph, said the government won “a black mark in its relations with international organisations” by refusing entry to Reporters Without Borders.

The ministry of information could instead have arranged interviews for the visitor and “welcomed them warmly”, she said.

“This could have been handled with wisdom, simplicity and openness instead of inflexibility, which harms Syria’s image abroad and gives the impression that there is no significant change inside Syria,” she added.

Mardini said Syrian journalists did not back the government’s decision.

Media reporting in the country was, however, sympathetic to the authorities.

Menard was arrested in Paris during a protest against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s visit to France in July

The website Cham Press published an article on September 18 attacking Reporters Without Borders and accusing Menard of “serving imperialism”.

The article alleged that Reporters Without Borders is backed by the CIA, an accusation that the group has denied in a statement issued on its website.

Activists said international organisations had not made an impact on Syria in recent years, and the recent clampdown on civil society and democracy groups made it unlikely that international rights groups would be given permission to enter Syria any time soon.

But they said barring these groups has little impact on their own efforts to push for change in Syria.

“Our work as human rights activists is to a large extent based on cooperating with international organisations, which helps us shed more light on violations and pushes the media to cover those violations,” said one journalist and advocate.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists.)