Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syria Wary of New Media

After information ministers from Arab states agreed to make new media and communications technology compatible across the Middle East, critics of the Syrian government said its real interest was in regaining control of a sphere where censorship of information is less and less effective.

A resolution issued on November 17, after information and communications ministers from the Arab countries met in Damascus, contained a pledge to develop a joint strategy for coping with new technological developments and to coordinate national policies on IT. However, the document stressed that this was not about imposing censorship.

At the meeting, Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal indicated that his government was struggling to keep abreast of evolving technology. “Electronic media are moving very fast and we fear that we’ll be unable to keep up,” he said.

Analysts say the increasing popularity and sheer number of news websites, together with advances in mobile phone technology, present a huge challenge for regimes that have traditionally controlled the flow of information their populations have access to.

“New media such as the internet and text messaging have shrugged off the restrictions that some governments impose on media, and have helped [people] get access to news that wouldn’t have been accessible if it were up to government officials,” said Damascus-based media expert Muyasar Suhail. “Governments can no longer control the news that’s published or halt the flow of information.”

Syria’s information ministry has a special committee on electronic media and information whose official purpose is to study the media situation, although critics argue that it was designed to address a situation where the government can control domestic radio and TV broadcasters but not electronic media.

Adnan Naouf, editor of Champress, a news website based in Damascus, said, “The future lies with electronic media, and that’s why the official media are trying to control the means of communication in order to tighten censorship over all media outlets, both conventional and electronic.”

Nidhal Malouf, editor-in-chief of the pro-government Syria News site, agreed that officials in charge of media “lack a clear vision of the major changes that will take place in this sector in future, and the immense amount of competition that media outlets are now facing”.

He went on, “This competition will make countries that have narrow margins of freedom, including Syria, interact with one another to get accurate information out into the open. Since facts can be neither concealed nor controlled, let’s present them to our audience in the right way, just as they are.”

At the same time, Malouf drew a careful distinction between media sanctioned by the Syrian authorities and those that operate covertly, suggesting that only the latter behaved unprofessionally.

“It is unprofessional media outlets that are able to violate the restrictions imposed on media, because they are often in hiding. The professional outlets would not do this, because they adhere to the policies that are set out,” he said.

Ghusoun Suleiman, a journalist with the state news agency SANA, was similarly dismissive of independent electronic media that run into trouble with the authorities.

“Some websites have little credibility when they publish news and reports. Some of them engage in defamation, denigration and offensive comments, which results in them being closed down,” said Suleiman.

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

More IWPR's Global Voices