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RSF delegation, French journalists denied entry at border

(RSF/IFEX) - A Reporters Without Borders delegation led by its secretary-general, Robert Ménard, together with well-known French TV journalist Patrick Poivre d'Arvor and photographer François Daburon were denied entry to Syria at a Lebanese border crossing on 13 September 2008.

After meeting Lebanese journalists in Beirut, the Reporters Without Borders representatives and Poivre d'Arvor had hoped to cross into Syria to meet with the relatives of imprisoned journalists. Reporters Without Borders was told that Syrian information minister Mohsen Bilal, was responsible for the refusal. "They will not get visas, not now or ever," he reportedly said.

"We are not surprised by this decision," Reporters Without Borders said. "The government controls the movements of foreign journalists in Syria with great care in order to prevent any coverage of its human rights abuses. Like other authoritarian states, Syria is an impenetrable country where news does not flow freely. It is regrettable that President Bashar el-Assad's reappearance on the international scene - facilitated and hastened by French President Nicolas Sarkozy - has not been accompanied by any progress in human rights."

The Syrian immigration officials at the Masnaa border crossing gave no reason for their refusal to allow Poivre d'Arvor, Daburon and the Reporters Without Borders delegation to enter the country on 13 September. The Union of Journalists and the Syrian Centre for the Media (a Reporters Without Borders partner organisation) tried in vain to intercede on their behalf.

It is absolutely essential for foreign journalists wanting to visa Syria to be approved by the information ministry in Damascus.

Four journalists and five cyber-dissidents are currently imprisoned in Syria. They include writer and poet Firas Saad, who is serving a four-year sentence for accusing the regime of "defeatism" in the July 2006 war in Lebanon. Writer and journalist Michel Kilo and human rights lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni have been held since May 2006 for calling for better relations between Syria and Lebanon. Journalists Fayez Sara, Akram Al-Bunni and Ali Abdallah are being held in Adra prison pending the outcome of a trial that is due to resume on 24 September. They face sentences of between three and 15 years in prison for calling for democratic reforms.

Sarkozy visited Damascus on 3-4 September after receiving Assad with great pomp in Paris for the opening of the Mediterranean Union summit in July.

At a joint news conference with Assad on 3 September, Sarkozy said: "Each country has its history, traditions and values. It is France's conviction that scrupulous respect for freedom of opinion is an advantage, not a handicap, in the fight against extremism. Bernard Kouchner and I raised this issue with President Assad during his visit to Paris on 13 July. We spoke of principles and people. I want to say that I was very happy about the release of two of the people who were on these lists during the summer. We have continued our dialogue today and I hope it will gradually become richer through other initiatives. That is what I hope."

It seems that one of the two releases to which Sarkozy referred was that of Aref Dalila, a government opponent held since 2001 for calling for political pluralism and respect for civil rights, who was freed on 7 August. The identity of the other detainee who was supposedly released is not known.

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