HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
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Despite an online connection established in 1997 and frequent pro-Internet statements, Syria remains the only connected country in the region that has yet to allow its public local access to the Internet. But a few thousand modems are said to be in Syrian hands, allowing those who have access to them to maintain Internet accounts with ISPs in Lebanon and elsewhere.(111) Syrians who are able to travel to neighboring Jordan or Lebanon can patronize cybercafés; none exist in Syria.

The government of President Hafez al-Asad did not respond to Human Rights Watch's letter requesting information on Internet policies. Its go-slow approach is consistent however with its efforts to suppress all forms of expression deemed critical of how the country is governed. All newspapers and broadcast media are tightly controlled, and hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars, many of them serving long terms for peaceful dissent.(112)

Official discourse about the Internet has been ambivalent, favorable to its potential as a tool of communication while mindful of its purported social dangers. A February 1998 article in the official Tishrin daily advocated an Arab strategy to develop Internet use in order to counteract the heavy Internet presence of Israeli sources and viewpoints. The author called for "prepar[ing] national and Arab plans to introduce the Internet culture to all people" and provid[ing] Internet connections at symbolic rates."(113) Since 1997, some official and semi-official Syrian institutions have been linked to the Internet. Some have established a presence on the Web, including the Syrian Arab News Agency (<>), Tishrin daily (<>), and the Syrian Computer Society (<>).

Syria's most prominent advocate of the Internet is Bashar al-Asad, the president's son. He chairs the Syrian Computer Society. According to one news report, Bashar's position in favor of public access to the Internet has been opposed by security and intelligence officials.(114)

A spokesman for the Syrian Computer Society, Saadallah Agha al-Kalaa, justified the slow approach to extending access beyond state institutions. "Our problem is...we are a traditional society, and we have to know if there is something that cannot fit with our society. We have to make it safe." He added, "We want to have Internet with a minimum of problems, so the solution was to go by stages. Where the need is most important, in universities, centers of research, ministries of economy...all these sites are connected now." Kalaa insisted that the government's reluctance to open up Syria to the Internet reflected social concern about Internet content rather than political fears about the free exchange of information.(115)

In an article sympathetically explaining Syria's "cautious" approach to the Internet, Amr Salem, a co-founder of the SCS, wrote:

In order for President Assad to feel comfortable promoting a particular technology, it must meet the following criteria:

1. It should benefit the majority of the Syrian people. Technology geared toward the elite is not favored because such people have the resources and means to get what they want without government assistance.

2. It should not disrupt the social structure or adversely affect the middle class, and must be within the means of the masses.

3. It should have a direct impact on Syria's overall social and economic development.

4. It should not jeopardize Syrian independence or security concerns.(116)

According to one news report, the few Syrians who have access to the Internet because they work at connected state institutions do not have unfettered access: Syria's sole service provider, the monopoly Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), blocks access to web sites containing information or pictures deemed offensive.(117) Human Rights Watch has no information concerning the type of content that is blocked. As noted above, the Syrian government and the Syrian Computer Society did not respond to written queries from Human Rights Watch concerning restrictions on Web access and content.

In early 1999 there were once again press reports that public access was imminent. Reuters reported that a public domestic e-mail service would be made available on a limited basis in February, but would be via a special server at the state telecommunications center that "would allow control of incoming and outgoing services, including the ability to block contact with destinations regarded as undesirable."(118) As of May 1999, public access was still unavailable.

111. Joseph Contreras, "The Information Age Dawns, Championed by Assad's Son," Newsweek, April 26, 1999.

112. See the Syria chapter in Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998), pp. 372-376, and Reporters sans Frontières, "Journalists Tortured in Syria," March 1999.

113. Husayn al-Ibrahim, "The Internet and Informatics in the Arab-Israeli Conflict," Tishrin, February 23, 1998, as reported in FBIS, March 1, 1998.

114. Douglas Jehl, "In Syria, Only the Population is Growing," New York Times, January 25, 1998.

115. Jack Redden, "Internet Arrives in Syria, But Not without Limits," Reuters, July 10, 1998. An e-mail sent by Human Rights Watch to the SCS seeking comment on the Reuters story went unanswered.

116. Amr Salem, "Syria's Cautious Embrace," Middle East Insight, March-April 1999, pp. 49-50.

117. "Internet Service in the Arab World," Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 6, 1998, as reported in FBIS, October 29, 1998.

118. "Syria Plans Controlled E-mail Service," Reuters, January 6, 1999.

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© June 1999
Human Rights Watch