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Saturday, 12 August, 2000, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Syrian media court glasnost
portrait of Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad's new era promises media openness
Syria's once tightly-controlled media have started to open up since Bashar al-Assad replaced his father Hafez as president, although some remain cautious about using their new-found freedom.

The media should act as a free and responsible rostrum, and should be able to exercise free criticism regarding all issues

Information Minister Adnam Umran

A new media policy began before Hafez's death in June with Mohammad Mustafa Miru's new government. Information Minister Adnam Umran held meetings with journalists in May urging them to balance freedom and responsibility.

"The media should act as a free and responsible rostrum, and should be able to exercise free criticism regarding all issues," SANA news agency quoted him as saying.

The new government's policy was backed by Bashar, who in his inauguration speech on 17 July called for an overhaul.

"Our educational, cultural and media institutions must be reformed and modernised in a manner that ... renounce the mentality of introversion and negativity, and treat the social problems that negatively affect the unity and security of society," he said.

Poverty debate

By the time of Bashar's accession, Syria's press was already showing signs of openness.

In an article on 15 July, Al-Thawra newspaper attacked an unnamed state official for saying that poverty did not exist in Syria.

"While anyone listening to this official should have thanked him for his hope not to have any more poor people among us, it is really terrible that this particular official thought, even for one moment, that there were no poor people at all in Syria!" it said.

Al-Thawra went further, taking the opportunity to call for open discussion of the issue.

Bashar al-Assad gives inauguration speech
Bashar called for reform

"Yes, sir, poverty does exist," it answered the official.

"However, concealing this issue means preserving it, whereas raising it openly means starting the challenge of finding solutions to it."

More recently, some Syrian journalists have begun criticising their own colleagues.

On 1 August Al-Thawra lambasted broadcast media for forcing Syrians to turn to foreign satellite stations for information.

"The time when the public was 'in our pocket' has gone for good and all of us receive a flood of information and news pouring down from the sky", commentator Ali Jamalu wrote.

Need for "self-control"

But Prime Minister Miru has tempered calls for reform, saying the media should "exercise ... self-control".

Disagreeing does not justify distancing from facts and falsifying them

Al-Thawra newspaper

A Teeshreen editorial on 6 August supported Mr Miru, saying journalists "should not be influenced by the public's whims and desires that may not be attainable".

Al-Thawra said that the Syrian media were already sufficiently open and had a good record of tackling "hot issues" over the years. Critics, meanwhile, were themselves far from objective.

"If they do not like us, this is their problem, not ours," it said.

"There are reasons for this problem, which might be the difference in political, social, economic, cultural backgrounds. Disagreeing is not a bad thing at all. But disagreeing does not justify distancing from facts and falsifying them."

Dawn of the Internet

As the old media in Syria move slowly towards openness, the development of the Internet, Bashar's pet project, promises to be rapid.

Teeshreen quoted an official of the Syrian Computer Society as saying that there were plans to add 200,000 new connection points to the 7,000 currently in existence, effectively bringing Syria into the new media age.

The government would only block access to sites which were "morally unacceptable" and put an emphasis on educating young people on suitability, it said.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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See also:

29 Jul 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Syria's changing face
17 Jul 00 | Media reports
Bashar's first policy speech: Excerpts
17 Jul 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Cautious start for Bashar
13 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Bashar's challenges
11 Jun 00 | Middle East
Bashar al-Assad: Eyeing the future
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