Despite the announcement of reforms at the Baath Party conference in Damascus in early June, hopes of liberalisation in Syrian media policy received a clear setback when the prime minister decided to withdraw the licence of the weekly paper al-Mubki. Götz Nordbruch reports
It was exactly such references to the danger of foreign powers using the media to manipulate youth which were used in the past to justify restrictions of the press and the repression of journalists
A spokesman for the information ministry justified the decision in a statement which said that there had been a breach of the conditions under which al-Mubki's licence had been awarded. He said the licence restricted the paper to covering social and not political topics, and that an article about the accusations of corruption being made against the governor of Homs broke that restriction. Al-Mubki was required to close after its sixteenth appearance. Only shortly before the satirical paper al-Dumari had been closed down.
The timing of the decision threw up various questions, not just for those directly affected. The move went against the cautious recommendations of reform which had been decided on during the Baath Party conference. They included, as well as a new formulation of the law on political parties, a proposal to set up a media council and to revise the 2001 press law.
Increases in the fines and prison sentences
In spite of the relaxation of state control which was evident during the first months after Bashar al-Assad came to power in summer 2000, the press law of 2001 did not come up to journalists' expectations. In the light of increases in the fines and prison sentences which can be imposed, one interpretation which is shared by many is that the new law is now almost a press criminalisation law.
Danny al-Baaj, coordinator of the leading Syrian internet newspaper Syria News, says the recommendations of the party congress have given him some confidence. The setting up of a media council, which would have to be independent of the government and could offer a forum for dialogue with non-state media, would in his view be highly welcome. He has the same hopes of a new press law, and he'd like to see representatives of private media involved in its formulation.
"A clear rule on where the red lines are is in the interests of both sides," says al-Baaj, and points to a problem which many journalists currently have: "Journalism is a permanent game about the limits of what can be said, and we on our paper are still playing that game." From time to time, Syria News has had to be careful following more or less disguised threats from the authorities, only then to try once more to see where those limits are.
Baath party member website blocked
Strictly speaking, internet newspapers work in an unregulated environment. The current press law applies only to printed publications. Nevertheless internet pages have been repeatedly blocked by the authorities. Ironically, one of the most recent victims of this attempt to silence sources of information which are unpopular with the authorities is the website of a member of the governing Baath Party.
All4Syria, a website belonging to the reformist party member Ayman Abdelnour, was blocked in spring this year, although the flow of information from the site could not be entirely stopped.
Abdelnour continues to send out an email newsletter and was able to create enough public pressure with a petition he included in his newsletter ahead of the party conference that a considerable number of reform-oriented party members were named as delegates.
Al-Baaj hopes that the forthcoming regulation of the internet will at least set formal limits on the despotic behaviour of the authorities towards publishers and authors.
Authorities' disrespect for current laws
But there's no guarantee that this will happen, as the case of the weekly paper al-Mubki shows. The withdrawal of its licence is hard to justify under current law. The law allows for fines in cases of breaches of the conditions of a licence, but it does not impose the immediate withdrawal of a licence. The publishers are therefore planning to appeal against the prime minister's decision.
The journalist Bahia Mardini, who reports regularly from Damascus for the internet newspaper Elaph, considers that the appeal gives her grounds for optimism, or perhaps she's optimistic in spite of the appeal. She believes that the courts must not be left alone with the case and she's issued a call via Syria4All which has been taken up by other websites for declarations of solidarity with al-Mubki, with a view to getting the authorities to revise their decision. But she too declares that "the recommendations of the Baath Party conference are going in the right direction, even if it's very slow progress."
It has not yet been possible to get an idea from official sources as to the direction in which that progress is going. Assad's brief comments in his opening speech at the conference on the increasing significance of global communication and new media show where the limits of the reforms might be. He referred to there being what he called a "power" behind these new technical opportunities, and he said that "power" was using foreign values to make young Arabs insecure and to rob them of their cultural identity.
The task of future reforms of Syrian society, he said, would have to be to prevent the "cultural, political and spiritual decline of the Arab people" which this power promotes. It was exactly such references to the danger of foreign powers using the media to manipulate youth which were used in the past to justify restrictions of the press and the repression of journalists.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
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