Syria Clamps Down on Private TV

Foreign-based Syrian satellite channels hamstrung by official action.

Syria Clamps Down on Private TV

Foreign-based Syrian satellite channels hamstrung by official action.

Wednesday, 9 September, 2009
One summer morning, the Holiday Inn café in Damascus was unusually busy with tables occupied by a worried-looking group of people.

They were employees of the private Syrian satellite channel Orient TV (Al-Mashrek), waiting to find out why they had suddenly been locked out of their offices.

“Maybe I should book myself a spot at the Hal market,” said one of them with black humour, referring to a Damascus food market where many unemployed professionals work as porters.

He seemed to know he was about to lose his job.

As the station’s staff left the café, word spread that its offices had been closed down by the state security apparatus during the night and that most of them would be summoned for interrogation.

Orient TV is the third of four private Syrian stations whose offices have been closed in recent years by authorities without any clear, official explanation.

The station had gained popularity recently thanks to a series of talk shows on social, economic and cultural issues affecting Syria.

All but one private Syrian channels broadcast from outside the country’s borders to escape domestic media restrictions.

Critics say that by crippling their capacity to gather information and report from inside Syria, authorities are trying to deprive the channels of content about the country.

“Everything can just end suddenly without any logical explanation,” said Malek Abu Kheir, the former director of programmes at Orient TV.

“You cannot predict when you would be considered as having crossed the red lines,” he said after losing his job. He felt his time developing his career in the media had now been wasted.

Even though the station will continue to broadcast from Dubai, some think that the quality of its programmes has already declined because it now has to rely on news gathered outside the country while in the past it was able to film reports on the ground and discuss local issues in the studio.

Participation from Syria in the station’s programmes is now limited to telephone interviews.

The station has dropped without explanations ten of its regular programmes. Experts said that the main reason was that it lacked content without staff on the ground in Syria.

Some employees at the station said that they were coerced by security officials to sign a document pledging not to work with the station again.

One employee said that authorities closed down the channel because it had become a podium for civil society groups by shedding light on their campaigns and projects, like a campaign to scrap a personal status draft law and other campaigns against sexual abuse of children.

The channel’s programmes were gaining more viewers every day and creating change in public opinion, which contrasted with the propaganda issued by the public television station, he said on condition of anonymity.

Many Syrian viewers have access to other Arab and international channels through satellite dishes, which are widespread in the country and are not subject to restrictions. However, some say that these broadcasts lack programmes focused on the issues that affect their daily lives in Syria as Orient TV did.

Earlier this year, authorities shut down a religious TV station, Al-Daawa, and confiscated all its equipment three months after its official opening. Local media reports said that security officials had forced the channel to announce that it had decided to stop broadcasting of its own will.

In 2006, Syrian-owned Sham TV suffered the same fate. Its offices were closed by force as it was preparing to broadcast its first news programme. The channel moved its offices and operations to Cairo.

Two other Syrian opposition channels, Barda and Zanoubia, have started broadcasts from Europe and never had offices in Syria.

Private Syrian TV stations started in 2001 when Syria issued a new media law allowing for the creation of privately owned media institutions.

The state had had a monopoly of the media sector since the Baath party took power in 1963 and a state of emergency was declared.

But the new law did not explicitly give TV stations the right to exist, according to a report published by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression.

The report said the Syrian authorities retained the right to grant licences to private channels outside of any legal framework and based on whether they were pleased with their owners or not.

Officials could then make a simple administrative decision to end the existence of these channels because they were legally vulnerable, it added.

“Private media is a necessary evil for the Syrian government after it announced a policy of development,” said a legal expert who asked to remain anonymous.

He added that the official strategy was to hand the leadership of private channels to businessmen close to the ruling political class.

Some Syrians believe that Dunya, the only private TV station now broadcasting from Syria, has survived because it is owned by a politically well-connected businessman.

According to the legal expert, despite attempts by officials to slow down the development of private stations, they cannot stop information from flowing freely.

“Tomorrow every citizen who owns a mobile phone with a camera will become a reporter for a website or a global TV channel,” he said.
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