Syrian Liberalization Hits Internet Wall

DAMASCUS – When he downloaded some material on Syria and emailed it to his friends, Abdel Rahman al-Shaghouri did not think he would end up in prison.

Al-Shaghouri, 32, already in prison since February 2003 for his “offense,” was sentenced this week to two-and-a-half years imprisonment by the security court.

He was held guilty of “disseminating false and exaggerated news that saps the morale of the nation.” He cannot appeal against the sentence.

The articles he downloaded from the site This is Syria were found by the authorities to contain “ideas and views opposed to the system of government in Syria.” The Human Rights Association of Syria has called for the immediate release of Shaghouri, and condemned his imprisonment as “a dangerous precedent against Internet users, and another step backwards.” The association called on interior minister Ali Hammoud “not to ratify the verdict of the court and release Shaghouri and all political detainees in Syria.” Amnesty International has described the trial as “grossly unfair” and highlighted the cases of other men held on similar charges. Brothers Muhammed Qutaysh and Haytham Qutaysh, and Yahia al-Aws face trial in August on charges of “sending false information abroad to an electronic newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates.” They also face charges of “receiving secret information on behalf of a foreign state which threatens the security of Syria.” A fourth detainee, student Masoud Hamid, is in prison for “unlawful” use of the Internet after he posted photographs of a Kurdish demonstration in Damascus on a website. Amnesty says he is being held in solitary confinement.

Anwar al-Buni, lawyer and member of the Human Rights Association in Syria told IPS that the sentence was “a political decision that quells the right of expression in Syria … and aims at keeping the Syrian society backward.” Hardliners who support such actions have been strengthened by recent developments such as the faltering U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, near-unconditional U.S. support for Israel’s plans in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and the growing global protest over the Bush administration’s international adventurism.

The new Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act passed by the U.S. Congress, which has led to sanctions against Syria, has also strengthened hardliners and brought many moderates to their fold. Three years ago Syrian President Bashar Assad authorized independent newspapers for the first time since the ruling Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963. A new law guaranteed “freedom of the press” and approved “unrestricted publication of journals, magazines and newspapers.” But the new law did impose restrictions. Publishers had to be Syrian nationals, and not “in the service or on the payroll of any foreign country.” All printed material must “abide by Syrian law.” The executive, judiciary and legislative branches are “above criticism” and any insult is punishable by up to three months in prison and a fine between $200 to $1,000.

Journalists who produce “false and undocumented material” could face prison terms of up to three years, and fines of up to $40,000. Journalists cannot be “subsidized” by any “public elements” including unions, syndicates, and societies. Assad allowed the independent newspapers because he said he wanted to hear “the opinion of the other.” Many independent newspapers came up. Among them was the Communist Party weekly Sawt al-Shaab (“Voice of the People”), al-Domari (“The Lamplighter”) published by renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Firzat, al-Wehdawi (“The Unionist”), a weekly published by the Unionist Socialist Party, and al-Jktisadiyya (“The Economist”), a weekly published by Waddah Abdrabboh, editor-in-chief of the Paris-based magazine al-Shahr. There are other signs of change. Popular plays and TV series crack jokes about matters that Syrians had for years only dared to whisper about.

A recent play Permitted in Syria makes jokes about how the dreaded Mukhabarat – the intelligence service – has penetrated every aspect of society. Another shows how trivial accusations against political dissidents can quickly become serious criminal charges. A third satirizes the privileges enjoyed by Syrian officials and their children.

In one episode in the serial Hakaya il-Maraya, coffee shop owner Abu Shaher is watching a speech by a government bigwig on television but the sound packs up. He bangs on the TV to make it work, but a customer turns him over to intelligence agents saying Abu Shaher was expressing anger at the official. Off goes Abu Shaher to jail, without an investigation.

Many see these shows as signs that they are freer now to criticize the government under President Assad. A joke or a misplaced word will not send them to jail the way it used to. But downloading and emailing an Internet article can.