Regime Puts Squeeze on Private Media

They have grown in number in recent years – though don’t last long if they fall foul of the regime.

Regime Puts Squeeze on Private Media

They have grown in number in recent years – though don’t last long if they fall foul of the regime.

Tuesday, 3 March, 2009
The authorities may have allowed private media outlets to operate over the past eight years, but have severely limited what they are allowed to say, according to observers.

Ahmed Khalif, a Damascus-based lawyer, said the independent press are not free to tackle issues such as the performance of the government, the role of civil society or human rights.

Those who write articles or broadcast material critical of the government can be prosecuted and imprisoned, say activists.

“What kind of free media institutions do we have if they can be blocked with one stroke of a pen without clear reasons?” asked Khalif. “If private newspapers cannot talk about how to build the state of Syria, why do they exist?”

For decades, the Syrian regime had an absolute monopoly over all media outlets and only state-run TVs and newspapers were permitted.

However, after Bashar al-Assad became president in 2000, there was some hope of greater freedom of expression. In September 2001, a new press law legalised private media and journalists attempted to tackle once-taboo topics like human rights violations, government failings and the rising costs of living.

Today, there are 150 private newspapers and magazines in the country, mainly covering the economic and service sectors. Another 175 media operators have requested official licenses.

Currently, Al-Watan is the main private newspaper covering politic affairs and human rights issues.

One private TV channel, Dunya, which is owned by wealthy Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, broadcasts news and entertainment programmes from Syria.

Seven radio channels also exist, but these are banned from airing political news.

The new press law has in many respects been restrictive. Although it permitted independent outlets, it threatened their journalists with up to three years' imprisonment for stories and broadcasts deemed to threaten national security or insult the state.

Dozens of Syrian journalists and writers have been prosecuted in the past few years under the press law, according to human rights groups.

The government cracks down on blogs and websites in particular. More than 100 websites addressing political, social and economic issues are currently blocked in Syria.

Reporters Without Borders, RSF, has labeled Syria as the Middle East country with the worst most repressive attitude towards online journalists.

Habib Saleh, 61, an online journalist, was arrested last year and accused of writing articles that “weakened national feeling” and “incited civil and religious warfare”, according to the international press freedom organisation.

RSF has called for the release of Saleh and four other so-called cyber-dissidents still held in jail - Firas Saad, Tariq Biassi, Kareem Arabji and Hammam Haddad.

The organisation also reported recently that a group of seven young activists has been in custody for nearly three years for creating an online discussion group and posting articles critical of the government.

Experts say that the Syrian authorities keep the flow of news and analysis in the press and on TV in check by intimidating journalists - prompting self-censorship - and preventing them from accessing information.

Omar Kosh, a Damascus-based journalist, said that reporters find it very difficult to obtain official information because of the government’s total “lack of transparency”.

Recently, reporters were barred from entering Syria’s central bank to conduct interviews or make any other inquiries after the authorities became irritated with journalists' coverage of economic issues.

The government sometimes prevents reporters from attending official meetings as a punishment for critical articles.

Many news outlets known to have tackled sensitive topics have been closed down.

In 2000, Al-Domri became the first private newspaper allowed to publish since the Ba’ath regime was established in 1963.

However, the daily was shut down three years later.

At the time, the authorities said that it did not meet the requirements to have its license renewed, but some observers speculated that it was closed because it had reported on government corruption.

Similarly, the private satellite TV channel Cham, launched in 2006, was ordered to stop broadcasting from Syria eight months after its launch. The station, owned by a former Syrian member of parliament, Akram al-Jundi, finally relocated to Egypt.

The remaining private channel, Dunya, comes under pressure from the ministry of information, say officials at the station.

Fouad Sharbaji, director of Dunya, said that his team has been “harassed” by Syrian authorities over material they have aired on the channel.

“We are a TV channel and not a political party,” said Sharbaji, who formerly headed the bureau of the Arab TV channel Al-Jazzera.

Dunya was the first Syrian channel to air footage of serious incidents in the country, such as the deadly car bomb that targeted a Shia neighborhood in Damascus in September 2008.

But some observers say the channel, which boasts a budget of 25 million US dollars, is only able to do this because it has ties with the Syrian regime.

Others suggest that the government uses the channel to air material that would create friction between Syria and its neighbours if broadcast on public TV.

For instance, Dunya launched a fierce campaign against Saudi Arabia when relations between Damascus and the kingdom soured during the Israeli offensive on Gaza.

Some journalists suggest that private media will only have real future prospects in Syria when true political reforms happen and the state of emergency - which the country has been under since 1963 – comes to an end.

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