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Despite concessions, crackdown continues

A still image from video shows crowds of mourners carrying a coffin on 25 March during funerals of protesters killed in earlier clashes in Daraa, Syria
A still image from video shows crowds of mourners carrying a coffin on 25 March during funerals of protesters killed in earlier clashes in Daraa, Syria

Reuters

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has released 260 political prisoners and promised security forces would stop shooting demonstrators, but the fate of Syrian journalists and protesters is no less secure. The death toll from protests in the southern city of Daraa is 61, some journalists have been detained, and the news blackout is being enforced with violence, report Human Rights Watch and other IFEX members. Plus, journalists and dissidents detained before the uprising have not been released and laws remain which criminalise speech.

In a speech today, 30 March, al-Assad failed to deliver on expectations that he would lift the state of emergency, in place since 1963. "It's extremely disappointing that President al-Assad has done nothing more than repeat the same vague promises of reform that he's been uttering for over a decade," said Human Rights Watch. "What's needed immediately if the authorities are to restore any shred of credibility are concrete actions to dismantle Syria's special courts and abolish provisions that criminalise free speech, assembly and association."

During the current crisis, "physical attacks, arrests, bans on visiting certain regions, deportations and disappearances all seem to be among the obsolete and archaic measures being used by the authorities to intimidate journalists trying to work in an independent and professional manner," said Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The Syrian authorities have been tightening security in recent days to enforce a news blackout on anti-government demonstrations and on the government's heavy-handed response.

Journalists have been banned from entering the southern city of Daraa, the locus of the political unrest and where, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 61 people are reported to have died since 18 March, many when security forces used live ammunition to disperse protests. President al-Assad has promised an investigation into the shootings, which he has ordered be stopped during demonstrations.

On 25 March, journalists were forced to return to the capital in convoys escorted by security forces for "their own safety" and were told they would have to get a permit from the information ministry to continue reporting. Syrian authorities revoked the press credentials of Reuters senior correspondent Khaled Oweis for "false" coverage and directed him to leave the country, RSF reports.

Syrian authorities expelled Reuters producer Ayat Basma and cameraman Ezzat Baltaji, both Lebanese nationals, on 28 March, after detaining them for two days, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and RSF. A Syrian official said the two journalists were arrested near the Lebanese border because they were not authorised to work in the country and were filming "in an area where filming is not permitted."

Although the government has released 260 detainees, the Kurdish blogger Kamal Hussein Sheikhou, the blogger Ahmed Hadifa and the journalist and writer Mohamed Dibo - all arrested in the recent unrest - are still being held, report RSF and the International Press Institute (IPI). IPI also reports that journalist and blogger Khaled Elekhetayar was last seen on 21 March, and his Facebook page has been hacked.

Two other journalists, Doha Hassan, who works for Orient TV and several websites, and Zaher Omareen, were arrested on 27 March and are reportedly being held by state security forces, according to RSF.

And Ali Al-Abdallah, a journalist and writer who is serving an 18-month jail sentence on a charge of "trying to harm Syria's relations with another state," is also still in prison, says RSF. Prior to the latest crackdown, Human Rights Watch documented the arrests of 92 prominent political and human rights activists since al-Assad came to power.

According to CPJ and IPI, the Syrian authorities have also resorted to censorship. Orient TV, a private, Dubai-based satellite channel that extensively covered protests in Daraa, has been jammed since 25 March. News reports also claim that Syrian officials have made harassing and threatening phone calls to Orient TV employees, suggesting the journalists could be treated as spies and their families persecuted.

Buthaina Shaaban, a senior presidential adviser, took a hard-line stance regarding news media coverage during a press conference on 24 March, reports CPJ. "There was a lot of exaggeration and many unspecified things that were said by news media. And we could see that they were not willing to take the news as it exactly was," said Shaaban, referring to protests in Daraa. Shaaban added, "Syrian state television tells the truth; no one else."

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