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Last Updated: Friday, 25 March, 2005, 11:57 GMT
Hoping for media freedom in Syria
By Dan Isaacs
BBC News, Damascus

The Syrian government has promised to reform highly restrictive press laws, but censorship is still widespread.

Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat
No Syrian editor is willing to publish Ali Farzat's cartoons
Four years ago, strict media regulations were introduced in Syria allowing for the banning of publications and the arrest and detention of journalists.

The government has now promised to reform these laws to allow greater press freedom, but is this happening?

In a Damascus cafe, Ali Farzat spreads out a selection of his cartoons in front of me.

Although his work is not officially banned in Syria, Ali explains that newspaper editors are unwilling to publish the images.

"They are afraid that if they do, they will get into trouble and could lose their jobs."

It is not hard to see why his cartoons are considered sensitive.

Many of them are brutally critical of figures in authority. A typical theme is of grossly overweight men in military uniform, rows of medals adorning their chests, showing their contempt for the common man.

Media censorship

One picture shows a starving man holding out a bowl out for food, but being given medals instead.

Another shows a flag-waving general leading his supporters over a cliff.

In a third, there is an image of man who has been severely tortured. He hangs from a wall in chains, a severed hand and foot lie on the ground beneath him.

Cartoon by Ali Farzat
Ruthless men in uniforms feature in many of Fazat's cartoons

Amid the chains and instruments of pain, the torturer himself sits watching a slushy romance on television.

The torturer is clearly emotionally absorbed in the plot and has a tear rolling down his cheek.

These are all images mocking life under a cruel dictatorship, where dissent is severely punished.

But nowhere is any specific individual identified.

Nor is there any reference to a particular country. And yet, the message is clear to everyone.

Ali Farzat also used to publish a satirical magazine called Addomari.

Launched in 2000, it was the first private publication to have been published in over 40 years of Baathist rule in Syria. But it was banned three years ago.

"It used the language of the people," Ali explained to me.

"Not like the cold language of the state media. That's why it became so successful.

"When I finally went too far for them, the government issued a resolution, and within one hour they had closed my newspaper and my office, and taken away my printing licence." In Syria, the state now owns and controls all media publications, and foreign newspapers are read by censors as they arrive in the country.

If they contain material considered inappropriate, they are not released to the distributors.

Reforms

There was a brief period following the death of President Hafez al-Assad in 2000, where greater freedom of expression was tolerated.

But this did not last long, and the following year tough new media regulations were introduced which allowed the banning of newspapers and the detention of journalists.

Cartoon by Ali Farzat
Farzat's satirical magazine was closed down by the government
My request for an interview with a government official to discuss these issues was granted without hesitation, itself a sign of a more relaxed attitude towards the foreign media operating within Syria.

At the Ministry of Information, Nizar Mayhoub explained to me that the press regulations imposed in 2001 were being re-evaluated.

"The reform process is ongoing in all aspects of Syrian society, and with it the margin of media freedom is expanding.

"We have recently had several articles in the state media that were very critical of Syrian security bodies.

"The planned print law amendments will expand these freedoms even more," Mr Mayhoub said.

Internet revolution

But there is still a long way to go before journalists can feel comfortable about what they write in Syria.

When Ibrahim Hamidi wrote an article that embarrassed the authorities in 2003, he was arrested and held in solitary confinement for five months.

He was accused of writing "falsehoods" about preparations being made for receiving Iraqi refugees into Syria.

This was a highly sensitive issue at a time when the Syrian government had publicly stated its opposition to a US-led attack on Iraq and was making no preparations deal with such an eventually.

Ibrahim says his case, which has still not been resolved, was used as a warning to other journalists to take care about what they write.

Cartoon by Ali Farzat
Strict press regulations imposed in 2001 are under review
But Ibrahim is also convinced that in recent months there has been a relaxation in the implementation of the restrictive press laws.

"To be fair," he tells me, "there has been a change.

"Those officials who believed they could control the flow of information are now realising that it's impossible.

"Any person even in a very poor place in Syria can now get the real truth, or at least different views, through all the international satellite TV channels."

There is clearly a distinct mood both within the organs of the state and those who want to write without restriction, that the tide of information flooding into Syria is unstoppable.

Even those websites carrying critical views of the Syrian government, and which the government has attempted to block, find their way into the public domain without much difficulty.

Internet cafes have sprung up all over Damascus, and although access to sensitive sites is almost certainly monitored by the ubiquitous security services, in reality there are no effective restrictions.

What impact this access to new forms of media is having on the attitudes of ordinary Syrians is impossible to assess, but there is no doubt that harnessing this information flow effectively poses great challenges both to the reformers and those determined to hold back the tide of change within the region.


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