Imagine being a journalist in a country where you cannot broadcast or print a story that “causes public unrest, disturbs international relations, violates the dignity of the state or national unity, affects the morale of the armed forces, or inflicts harm on the national economy and the safety of the monetary system.”
Journalists working in Syria routinely encounter enormous obstacles and consequences — including prison terms of one to three years and fines from $10,000 to $20,000 — when publishing any story because it could be deemed “inaccurate” under the country’s 2001 Publications Law.
“Arbitrary behavior remains the norm in Syria,” according to the 2007 Annual Report on Syria by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “Journalists and political activists risk arrest at any time for any reason and are up against a whimsical and vengeful state apparatus which continually adds to the list of things banned or forbidden to be mentioned.”
State of the media
During the past year alone, numerous journalists in Syria have been arrested for supposedly criticizing the government. Freelance journalist Ali Abdallah was given a six-month prison sentence for publishing an article on the weaknesses of Syria’s economy. He was arrested in March 2006 but not tried until five months later.
His son was given a similar sentence after reporting the father’s arrest to Al-Jazeera TV. In addition, the RSF report states that both men “were held in secret for a month, and family and lawyers were not allowed to see them.”
Another journalist, Michel Kilo, was arrested and imprisoned May 14, 2006, for signing a declaration supporting improved relations between Syria and Lebanon. Four hearings have been conducted, but there is no anticipated date for his release.
“The Syrian regime is hounding Kilo while trying to deny the existence of prisoners of conscience,” RSF said.
In a special report issued last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria was listed as one of the “10 Most Censored Countries” in the world. “The press law maps out an array of restrictions against the media, including a requirement that periodicals obtain licenses from the prime minister, who can deny any application not in the ‘public interest.’”
In the headlines
* “World ‘ignoring Iraqi refugees’” from BBC News (news.bbc.co.uk)
* “Syria foils a weapons smuggling operation” and “Syrian Court sentences Islamist over September 11 attacks” from Syria Today, an independent monthly magazine (www.syria-today.com/pkg05)
* “Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources Discusses with a Russian Petroleum Company the Execution of Projects in Syria,” from the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (www.sana.org/index_eng.html)
* “Syria’s Assad says Saudi ties have been ‘cloudy’” from Reuters (www.alertnet.org/index.htm)
* Located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, Syria shares borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
* Population is nearly 19 million.
* More than 90 percent of the people are of Arab descent, and about 75 percent are Sunni Muslim.
* Once a part of the Ottoman Empire, the nation received its independence from France through a League of Nations mandate April 17, 1946.
Syrian Arab News Agency (state-run)
Syria Today Magazine (independent)
Syria Internet News Media
Bruce Swaffield is a member of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee.