July 16, 2010

II. Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

The Ba`ath party banned all independent publications after it came to power in 1963, and for the following 40 years only three newspapers existed in Syria, all of which were affiliated with the party: al-Ba`ath (the party’s official mouthpiece since 1947), al-Thawra (a 1963 Ba`ath daily meaning “revolution”), and Tishreen (a 1973 Ba`ath daily).[27]

After Bashar al-Asad assumed power, he removed the outright ban on independent publications, but introduced a new Press Law (Decree No. 50/2001), promulgated on September 22, 2001, which provided the government with sweeping control over newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals, as well as virtually anything else printed in Syria, from books to pamphlets and posters. Provisions apply to publishers, editors, journalists, authors, printers, distributors, and bookstore owners, and subject them to imprisonment and steep fines for violations of the law.[28]

Initially, the authorities mostly granted licenses to economic and cultural publications, or to political newspapers issued by individuals or parties close to the Ba`ath party, such as the Communist Party which received a license to publish a weekly entitled Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People) in February 2001.[29] The most promising development was the granting that same month of a license to Addomari (the Lamp Lighter), a satirical publication published by renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat. The newspaper was an instant success as it was the first Syrian newspaper in 40 years that printed something different from the views of the Ba`ath party or those of its close allies. With a circulation of 75,000, it sold many times more than the three “official” dailies, but the government closed it down in 2003 after officials told its founder, Ali Farzat, that he “went too far.”[30] His publication had criticized Saddam Hussein by showing him and his generals stuffing the Iraqi people as cannon fodder in the face of the impending US invasion, at a time when the Syrian government’s policy was to oppose the invasion of Iraq.[31]

Censorship remains widespread. The Arab Establishment for Distribution of Printed Products, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Information, vets all newspapers prior to distribution. Syria’s two private daily newspapers covering political topics that have succeeded in staying open are owned by businessmen closely tied to the regime: al-Watan, launched in November 2006, is a daily political newspaper widely reported to be published by President al-Asad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf; Baladna, a social affairs newspaper, is published by Majd Suleiman, son of security chief General Bahjat Suleiman.[32]

On July 13, 2005, Nizar Mayhoob, a spokesman for the Syrian Ministry of Information, told Human Rights Watch that Syria would issue a new media law, “which will enhance the [press] law issued in 2001 by overcoming its inadequacies.” Al-Asad himself, in his second inaugural speech on July 18, 2007, noted that:

On the media law, the subject has been raised many times. There is a recent proposal by the Ministry of Information on the need to amend the media law. I heard many complaints from journalists and others that they are not happy with the existing law. There could be proposals from the Ministry of Information in this regard which could be studied by the People’s Assembly, and the law could be passed.[33]

As of July 6, 2010, no new law had been introduced and there is still no independent press in Syria.

Instead, the government has extended restrictions it imposes on print media to online outlets, reversing early hopes that al-Asad’s role as chairman of the Syrian Computer Society (SCS) prior to his appointment as president would make him more receptive to freedom of expression online. OpenNet Initiative, a partnership of four leading universities in the US, Canada, and the UK, which monitors government filtration and surveillance of the internet, says that filtering of political websites in Syria is “pervasive.” Internet censorship extends to popular websites such as Blogger (Google’s blogging engine), Facebook, and YouTube.[34]

The authorities have also prosecuted journalists, bloggers, and citizens who dare criticize the authorities or the president. The vast majority of journalists and bloggers have been tried before the State Security Court (SSSC), an exceptional court with almost no procedural guarantees. In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria number three on a list of the ten worst countries in which to be a blogger based on the arrests, harassments, and restrictions that online writers in Syria have faced.[35] Human Rights Watch found that between January 2007 and June 2008, the SSSC sentenced at least 10 writers and bloggers who had criticized the authorities, and that overall the court convicted 153 defendants on the basis of overbroad security provisions (described in Section 1 above) that violate basic rights to freedom of expression. In one case, the SSSC sentenced Muhamad Walid al-Husseini, 67, to three years in prison because a member of the security services overheard him insult the Syrian president and criticize the country’s corruption while sitting at a popular café in Syria.[36]

Table 1. Known Journalists and Bloggers Detained During Bashar al-Asad’s First Decade in Power[37]

Name

Date of Arrest and Context

Charges/Sentence/Outcome

Ibrahim Hamidi, journalist at al-Hayat

Detained on December 23, 2002, after publishing article reporting that Syria was preparing to receive one million Iraqi refugees in the event of a war in Iraq.

Charged with “publishing unfounded news,” a violation of Article 51 of the 2001 Publication Law. He was released on bail on May 25, 2003. SSSC finally ruled on April 10, 2005, that it did not have sufficient evidence to proceed with the case.

Two sisters `Aziza and Shireen al-Sabini, who both worked for al-Muharir al-`Arabi newspaper

Detained in 2002.

Charged with “obtaining information that should be kept confidential for the integrity of the state.” Aziza Sabini was also charged with “promoting news that may weaken the morale of the nation.” The SSSC later sentenced them to one year in prison.

`Abdel Rahman al-Shaghouri, online journalist for the opposition website Levant News

Detained on February 23, 2003.

SSSC sentenced him to two and a half years in prison on June 20, 2004 for “disseminating false information” via the internet. He was released on August 31, 2005.

Muhannad and Haytham Qutaysh, and Yahya al-Aws

Detained in September 2002 for sending e-mails to a UAE based newspaper about the reported death of two construction workers in Damascus.

SSSC sentenced them in July 25, 2004, for “receiving secret information on behalf of a foreign state that threatens the security of Syria,” using the internet to publish “false news outside of Syria” under the Press Law, and “encouraging the transfer of secret information.” The court further found Haytham Qutaish guilty of “writing that threatens the security of Syria and her relations with foreign states.” The sentences ranged from two to four years in prison.

Mas`ud Hamed

Detained on July 24, 2003, after he posted online photographs of police violently dispersing a demonstration of Syrian Kurdish children in front of UNICEF’s offices in Damascus.

The SSSC sentenced him on October 10, 2004, to three years in prison, after finding him guilty of “membership in a secret organization” and “attempting to annex part of Syrian territory to another country.”

Ali Zein al-`Abideen Mej`an

Detained on October 9, 2005, after he posted comments online attacking Saudi Arabia.

The SSSC sentenced him on September 23, 2007, to two years in prison for “undertaking actions or writing or making speeches unauthorized by the government ... that spoil its ties with a foreign state.”

Omar al-Abdullah, Tarek Ghorani, Maher Ibrahim Asper, Ayham Saqr, `Ulam Fakhour, Diab Siriya, and Husam Melhem

Detained between January and March 2006 after developing a youth discussion group and publishing certain articles online that were critical of Syrian authorities.

The SSSC sentenced the group to sentences varying from five to seven years in jail for “taking action or making a written statement that could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country.”

Muhammad Ghanem, online journalist and editor of the news website Surion.

Arrested on March 31, 2006, reportedly for articles he had written advocating political and cultural rights for Syria’s Kurdish minority and for criticizing the Ba`ath Party’s handling of domestic issues. Ghanem was previously arrested and detained for 15 days by military intelligence in March 2004.

A military court found him guilty of insulting the president, undermining the state’s dignity, and inciting sectarian divisions; it sentenced him to six months in jail.

Firas Sa`ad, writer and poet

Detained on July 30, 2006, after he published articles on the website www.ahewar.org, in which he defended a call for improved relations between Lebanon and Syria and criticized the Syrian army’s role in the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

On April 7, 2008, the SSSC sentenced him to four years in jail for “weakening national sentiment.”

Ali Sayed al-Shihabi, English teacher and writer

Detained on August 10, 2006, following a number of articles he published on the website www.rezgar.com, including one in which he called for the creation of a new political party called “Syria for all.”

Released pursuant to amnesty on January 9, 2007, before his trial concluded.

 

Muhanad Abdel-Rahman and `Ala’ al-Deen Hamdoun, journalists

Both were arrested in September 2006 while conducting an investigation of the state of labor unions in Syria.

Charged with Art. 287 (spreading false information) before a military court. Charge eventually set aside as part of General Amnesty No. 56 of September 2007. Both were released in September 2007.

Karim `Arbaji

Detained in June 2007 for moderating a popular online youth forum, akhawia.net, that included criticisms of the government.

The SSSC sentenced him to three years in prison on September 13, 2009, for “spreading false information that can weaken national sentiment.”

Tariq Biasi, blogger and son of former political prisoner

Arrested in July 2007after he posted critical comments about the security services on a website

The SSSC sentenced him to three years imprisonment on May 11, 2008, on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false news”.

Mazen Darwish, journalist and president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression

Arrested on January 12, 2008, for reporting on violent clashes in the Damascus suburb of `Adra.

A military court sentenced him on June 23, 2008, to five days in jail.

Abdullah Ali Suleiman, publisher of the website Nazaha.com

Detained on July 30, 2008, for 13 days after authorities shut down his website.

No charges brought.

Accordingly, we urge President Bashar al-Asad to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all those imprisoned or detained solely for exercising their right to free expression, online or otherwise.
  • Stop blocking websites for their content.
  • Introduce a new media law that would remove all prison penalties for defamation and libel; stop government censorship of local and foreign publications; and remove government control over newspapers and other publications.
  • Amend or abolish the vague provisions of the Syrian Penal Code that permit the authorities to arbitrarily suppress and punish individuals for peaceful expression, in breach of its international legal obligations, on grounds that “national security” is being endangered, including the following provisions: Article 278 (undertaking “acts, writings, or speech unauthorized by the government that expose Syria to the danger of belligerent acts or that disrupt Syria’s ties to foreign states”), Article 285 (“issuing calls that weaken national sentiment or awaken racial or sectarian tensions while Syria is at war or is expecting a war”), Article 286 (spreading “false or exaggerated information that weaken national sentiment while Syria is at war or is expecting a war”), Article 307 (undertaking “acts, writings or speech that incite sectarian, racial or religious strife”), and Article 376 (which imposes a sentence from one to three years on anyone who insults the president).

 

[27] Teshreen and al-Thawra are published by the Unity Institution for the Press, Publication and Printing (Mu’assasat al-wihda lil-sahafa wa al-tiba`at wa al-nashar) whose board is appointed by the Prime Minister. See, for example, the decision by Prime Minister `Otari to appoint the board on April 11, 2007: “Al-Jarrad is President of the Administrative Board for the Unity Institution for the Press, Publication, Printing, and Distribution,” SANA News Agency, April 11, 2007, http://furat.alwehda.gov.sy/_archive.asp?FileName=47329122220070410233947 (accessed July 5, 2010).

[28] A fuller analysis of the 2001 Press Law is available in Human Rights Watch, Memorandum to the Syrian Government, Decree No. 51/2001: Human Rights Concerns, January 31, 2002.

[29]Sawt al-Shaab had been outlawed since 1958. In contrast to the decision to grant a license to republish Sawt al-Shaab, the Syrian government turned down in 2001 two applications to re-launch popular independent newspapers that existed prior to the Ba`ath’s arrival to power in 1963: al-Qabas (The Firebrand) and al-Ayyam (The Times). For more information on developments affecting the press in Syria in 2001, see Sami Moubayed, “Independent Journalism Slowly Returning to Syria,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2001, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:34rNEM_7W7MJ:www.wrmea.com/archives/july01/0107036.html+ba`ath+in+syria+independent+newspaper&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=lb (accessed June 10, 2010).

[30] For more information about Addomari, including interviews with its founder Ali Farzat, check Dan Isaacs, “Hoping for Media Freedom in Syria,” BBC News Online, March 25, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4381739.stm (accessed June 10, 2010).

[31] David Hirst, “Saddam No Longer a Joke for Syrian Satirist,” The Guardian, August 21, 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/aug/21/syria.davidhirst (accessed June 10, 2010).

[32] For Makhlouf’s role in publishing al-Watan, see for example, International Research and Exchanges Board, Media Sustainability Index (MSI) - Middle East & North Africa (MENA), Syria, 2008, http://www.irex.org/programs/MSI_MENA/2008/MSIMENA_syria.asp (accessed July 4, 2010). Baladna is published by United Group for Publishing, Advertising and Marketing, which is chaired by Majd Suleiman, see company website: http://www.ug.com.sy/chairman-letter.html (accessed on July 4, 2010).

[33] Bashar al-Asad’s Second Inaugural Address on July 18, 2007, available at http://www.mideastweb.org/bashar_assad_inauguration_2007.htm (accessed on June 10, 2010).

[34]OpenNet Initiative, Syria, http://opennet.net/research/profiles/syria (accessed June 15, 2010); Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syria blocks Facebook in Internet crackdown,” Reuters, November, 23, 2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSOWE37285020071123.

[35]Committee to Protect Journalists, “10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger,” April 30, 2009, http://www.cpj.org/reports/2009/04/10-worst-countries-to-be-a-blogger.php (accessed June 10, 2010).

[36]For more information see Human Rights Watch, Far From Justice: Syria’s Supreme State Security Court, 1-56432-434-6, February 2009, http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/02/23/far-justice, p. 35.

[37] The table is based on multiple sources of information, including interviews with journalists, Syrian human rights activists, as well as a review of press releases by Syrian and other international human rights groups. For more information on arrest of bloggers, see Human Rights Watch, False Freedom: Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995), http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11563/section/7, section 7.