The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria

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International pressure mounts on Syria as press freedoms come under scrutiny

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

• Travel bans imposed on journalists

• Hundreds of news websites censored

The Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, has marked ten years of the Syrian regime by publishing an open letter in which it details serious violations of press and internet freedoms. Joel Simon, Executive Director of the CPJ, begins by pointing out that:

“The government [is] still deciding who is and isn’t a journalist, filtering the Internet, and imprisoning reporters for their critical work.”

The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria, ODFS, today added its weight to the campaign. In a statement, ODFS Director, Ribal al Assad, said:

"We welcome and support the CPJ letter. It is a damning indictment of the Syrian regime and its policies over the last ten years.

“A strong free media environment in Syria would be an investment in the long-term progress of the country. It would encourage the growth of a strong civil society, which would lead to a stable, sustainable democracy with solid social, political, and economic development.

“We call on the Syrian regime to end press and internet censorship and unleash social media, and release all political prisoners."

The CPJ is particularly critical of the arbitrary use of Syrian law in silencing or detaining critics of the government. ‘Weakening national sentiment’ is a crime under Article 286 of the Penal Code, and is often used to silence journalists critical of the government or its policies.

The internet is also heavily restricted, and the CPJ note that Syria is firmly in the top ten worst countries in which to be a blogger.

Recently, the Organisation for Democracy and Freedom called for the internet “to be unleashed” in Syria. Only 16.5% of Syrians use the internet. This is one of the lowest penetration rates in the world. The regime has blocked over 200 websites. These are mainly sites which question its policies. Censorship particularly targets social networking and blog platforms as part of a policy to prevent freedom activists getting organised and bringing people together.

Blogspot, Maktoob, Facebook and Youtube are all blocked.

Internet users are subject to surveillance from the regime. Website owners are legally required to keep the personal data of anyone who posts comments or articles online. Security agents monitor internet cafes and the owners are obliged to identify their clients and report on the "illegal" websites they visit.

Ribal al Assad, who runs the ODFS from London, confirmed that he is currently initiating the formation of the Parliamentary Campaign Group for Freedom in Syria, which will increase pressure on the Syrian regime to respect and promote media and internet freedoms.


Notes for Editors:

The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria (ODFS) is an independent body, which promotes democracy, freedom and human rights in Syria and the Middle East.

ODFS researches and analyses current events and policy in Syria and the Middle East, and provides information to parliamentarians, civil servants, the media, think tanks, academics, students, the public and all other interested parties in Britain and around the world.

Ribal Al-Assad is the Founder and Director of The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria. He is an international campaigner for democracy, freedom and human rights. Ribal, 35, was born in Syria and has lived in the West since being exiled from his country as a child. He brings new ideas and perspectives to campaigning for democracy and freedom in Syria and the Middle East and is a regular speaker on political and human rights platforms. Ribal regularly interacts with politicians, civil servants, academics, journalists, think tanks, pro-democracy, and human rights groups all around the world.

Ribal is also Chairman of the Arabic News Network (ANN) satellite television channel, which broadcasts throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa and promotes democracy, freedom and peace in the Middle East.

Ribal is extensively involved in promoting interfaith dialogue and relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians around the globe. Over the last few years Ribal has successfully been involved in helping to tackle inter-religious and intra-religious conflict and violence in Lebanon. One of his notable achievements was to help facilitate a rapprochement between the Alawite and the Sunni Muslims in North Lebanon.

The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria campaigns for:

- An end to the State of Emergency, in place since 1963

- A commitment to human rights for all groups, religions and minorities

- An end to corruption and the liberalization of the Syrian economy

- An end to press and internet censorship

- Greater rights for Syrian women and their greater representation in the political, economic, and social fields

- Peace in the Middle East through a two state solution with a viable, independent and democratic state of Palestine and the return of all of the Golan Heights to Syria in a land for peace deal

- An end to extremism and violence

The CPJ letter, dated 30 July, states:

As you celebrate the 10th anniversary of your ascent to power this month, we are writing to draw your attention to conditions that continue to undermine press freedom in Syria. In 10 years, conditions for the media have hardly improved, with the government still deciding who is and isn’t a journalist, filtering the Internet, and imprisoning reporters for their critical work.

A decade ago, standing in front of the Syrian Parliament, in a speech you delivered after taking the constitutional oath, you said that “constructive criticism” is a central pillar of developing Syria. In 2007, when you were sworn in for your second term, you noted that the success of reform is linked with “providing citizens with the correct information.” The mission of journalists is to provide the information and criticism you named.

A vigorous, hopeful debate took place as soon as you took on the presidency. Journalists were at the forefront of these discussions in what came to be known as the “Damascus Spring.” Unfortunately, it was not long before critical voices were silenced and many prominent journalists, like al-Hayat’s Ibrahim Hemaidi, were sentenced to prison. (Hemaidi was arrested in December 2002 and released in May 2003.)

Today, we ask you to ensure that no journalists are behind bars for doing their jobs.

•We call on you to intervene to secure the release of Ali al-Abdallah, a freelance journalist who is being held despite completing 30-month prison sentence for a critical article he wrote while in prison.

•We ask that you instruct the proper authorities to drop criminal charges against two investigative journalists, Bassam Ali and Suhaila Ismail. They are currently facing a military trial in connection to reports they wrote in 2005 and 2006 on corruption in the Public Company for Fertilizers in Syria. They are facing prosecution despite the fact that the government itself saw it fit to dismiss the head of the company as a result of the malfeasance unearthed in their investigations.

It is time for you to amend the country’s Press Law and to end the use of anti-state provisions in the Penal Code against journalists. In 2001, CPJ welcomed the legalization of private media in Syria, which had been banned since 1963, but we were disturbed by the excessive restrictions placed on journalists in the Press Law passed in the same year. The Press Law gives the government sweeping powers over printed publications.

•Article 12, for instance, requires all private publications to be licensed by the government, a process that is open-ended, nontransparent, and arbitrary. Applications can be rejected if the proposed publication is perceived as threatening Syria's "national interest," a vaguely construed term that has repeatedly been interpreted in a politicized fashion.

•Licenses are routinely and arbitrarily revoked as was the case with Domari, a commercially successful private satirical weekly, in 2003. Article 28 of the same law provides the minister of information with unbridled powers to decide who is and is not a journalist and who can obtain a press card.

•Chapter 4 of the law penalizes publishers and printing presses for “breach of security or sovereignty of the country and its integrity,” with prison terms, fines, and closures. The vague definition of the crime has historically been used to silence critical outlets. Article 51 sets long prison terms and massive fines—three years in prison and 1 million Syrian pounds (US$21,500) in fines, for "spreading false information."

In 2007, you acknowledged “many complaints from the media and others about their dissatisfaction with the current Press Law.” At the time you indicated that the Ministry of Information was in the process of recommending ways to improve the law. We urge you to ensure that long-stalled amendments to the restrictive Press Law are enacted, in particular ones that address the shortcomings outlined above.

We have also documented with great concern the fact that journalists in Syria are often charged under loosely worded anti-state provisions in the Penal Code, particularly Article 278 (“acts, writings, or speech unauthorized by the government that expose Syria to the danger of belligerent acts or that disrupt Syria’s ties with foreign states”), Article 285 (“weakening national sentiment or awaking racial or sectarian tensions”), and Article 286 (“spreading false or exaggerated information”). We call on you to ensure that these vaguely defined provisions not be used to prosecute journalists.

It is also time for your government to abandon censorship of Internet content. As the former chairman of the Syrian Computer Society and a known computer and Internet enthusiast, we ask that you bring to an end the state’s censorship of Internet content. According to the Syrian Center for Media and Free Expression, 241 news and information websites were blocked in Syria in 2009. CPJ research indicates that the total number of blocked websites is far higher. A recent CPJ report found that Syria was among the 10 worst countries to be a blogger in 2009.

Lastly, we ask that your government end the routine practice of instituting travel bans against journalists. News reports indicate that in 2008, Lafa Khaled, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera, and Mazen Darwish, the director of a local press freedom group, were banned from travelling. CPJ research indicates that a large number of critical journalists are prevented from leaving Syria. We ask you to lift all active travel bans on journalists.

... we urge you to take action now to allow for a lively, critical media environment in Syria, in print and online. Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your reply.


Joel Simon

Executive Director

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