Mapping the Freedom of Press and Media in Syria

In a recent publication, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RWB) (2009) asked “What is happening to press freedom in Syria?” The answer was: “It is hard to know because many journalists refuse to speak either on the record or anonymously for fear of being identified by the intelligence services”. This statement is a reason to map the situation of freedom of press and media in Syria more closely.

The overall picture of freedom of press and media in Syria seems very critical. In a world wide ranking of press freedom by RWB (2009), Syria ranks on place 165 of 175 rated states. In the region, only Saudi Arabia and Yemen reach comparable or worse scores. Recent events even worsen the picture, like the close-down of the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression, the only local NGO that documented violations of freedom in Syria.

In general, Syria knows three laws that are used to control media and to justify punishments for journalists (RWB, 2010): The Penal Code, the State of Emergency law, and most important the Press Code of 2001. Following the International Press Institute (IPI) (2010), the Press Code prohibits attacks on the state’s prestige or dignity, the national unity or army moral as well as attacks on national pillars like the economy or currency. Under reference to this code, even seemingly harmless events are punished, like meetings of Syrian journalists with international counterparts, as IPI claims. The range of punishment reaches from dismissal of the workplace until banishment from the country.

In the following, an overview of censorship and restrictions of the freedom of media and press will be given for the three main sources broadcasting, print and the internet.

TV broadcasting is described as a part of the system (Economist, 2008). All stations are controlled by the state’s authorities (IPI, 2010). The stories that are told are mostly echoing the thoughts and opinions of the regime. Criticism is rare, even if liberalization of content and control is ongoing. Besides liberalization, the number of foreign broadcasting stations is growing.

The situation of radio broadcasting isn’t quite different (Economist, 2008). The state control is also very intense but the liberation of limits and contents is even stronger. Today, it is even possible to broadcast interviews with members of Syria’s opposition. A few private radio stations were permitted in recent years, but those are not allowed to broadcast news or political content (IPI, 2010).

The limits for print media, especially newspapers, are still harder as those for broadcasting media. The biggest newspapers of Syria, Syria Times and Tishreen are published by government-owned companies (Alan, 2000). Because of mainly echoing the thoughts of the government, also print media are often seen as a part of Syria’s system of propaganda and control. Although the print media market is also undergoing a process of liberation (Blanford, 2005), critical writing is only accepted in limited fields and still risky (Alan, 2000). Independent writers often tend to publish articles in the more liberal press of Lebanon, because of threat by the Syrian government and greater chance to be published.

Most liberal foreign newspapers are prohibited as Kurdish-language publications in general (IPI, 2010). Nevertheless, the number of foreign newspapers and magazines is growing, due to liberalization.

While print and broadcasting media knew some liberalization in the past, the regulation and censorship of the internet is still growing (RWB, 2010). The censorship of new media is managed by the central Syrian Telecommunication Establishment and the Syrian Information Organization. In 2009, the number of blocked websites raised up to 241 (IPI, 2010). Next to 49 Kurdish, 35 oppositional, 22 Lebanese, 15 human rights, and 9 cultural websites and different proxy-servers, also international platforms like Facebook,, YouTube and were blocked (RWB, 2010).
The blocked websites can still be reached by international proxy-servers and the authorities are facing problems to get rid of that (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2010). As a reaction, owners of websites are forced to maintain personal data of all persons that are posting articles and comments. Also owners of internet-cafes need to list personal data of their visitors (even including the names of the parents), as well as the websites that are rooted by the users.

The limits of online-content and punishment for its authors were even increased. The Committee to Protect Journalist (2009) calls Syria in the list of the “10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger” and argues that imprisonment is used to encourage the self-censorship of bloggers. Currently, four Syrian bloggers are imprisoned for violating the Penal Code and the Press Code.

Obviously, the Syrian authorities are shifting their attendance from classical forms of media as print and broadcasting to the new electronic forms of media, but why? The true reasons of this change are unknown. It might be possible that it is just necessary to focus on one medium because of a lack of power to control all media. By that it might be seen as a sign of weakness. On the other hand, it is also possible that the change is done for tactical reasons as new media with public access have shown power to support revolts and riots, as seen in Iran, while liberation in classical media can be used as a sign of liberation and freedom. Further questions occur due to the involvement of the western world: Human Rights Watch (2010) is criticizing the USA and the European Union for involving in Syria without broaching the issue of Human Rights and Press Freedom and western companies are suspected to deliver internet filter software to the telecommunication authorities.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Zeytun's editorial policy.

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