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Distribution of Saudi-owned newspaper suspended amid tension between Arab regimes

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders condemns Syria's ban on distribution of the pan-Arab daily "Al-Hayat" since 29 September 2008. The ban on the newspaper, which is Saudi-owned, comes amid a freeze in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia that began after a bombing in Damascus in September.

"The Arab media often depend on good diplomatic relations between the countries that finance them and the countries where they operate," Reporters Without Borders said. "The pan-Arab TV station Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari government, has problems whenever there is tension between Qatar and another Arab country. This is the case in Saudi Arabia, for example, where Al Jazeera has long been banned. Similarly, recent friction between Iran and Egypt resulted in the Iranian TV station Al Alam being forced to close its Cairo bureau."

"Al-Hayat"'s Beirut bureau was notified by the Syrian information ministry's censorship office on 29 September that distribution of the newspaper was being suspended "until further notice." "Al-Hayat", which has its editorial headquarters in London, is printed in several Arab capitals including Beirut. Copies were transported by land across the border for distribution in Syria.

Several members of the newspaper's staff in London and Beirut told Reporters Without Borders that issues have often been banned by the Syrian authorities without warning and without explanation. As many as 10 issues a month have been blocked in this manner, they said. "Al-Hayat"'s Damascus correspondent, Ibrahim Hamidi, has often been summoned by officials for questioning about his reports or the newspaper's editorials.

The Syrian authorities gave no official explanation for the ban that took effect on 29 September, which the newspaper's staff attribute to a deterioration in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia. Riyad was widely condemned in the Syrian press for failing to publicly condemn the bombing that took place in Damascus on 27 September.

Another Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, "Al Sharq Al Awsat", has been banned in Syria since the summer of 2006 as a result of its coverage of the war in Lebanon. Both newspapers have repeatedly demonstrated their editorial independence with regard to Arab governments. The Saudi journalist Mashari Al-Dhaidi recently wrote an article for "Al Sharq Al Awsat" about the Damascus bombing in which he claimed that the Syrian security services were probably involved.

The foreign media that are available in Syria are carefully monitored by the Information Ministry while journalists working for foreign media outlets, especially Arabic-language ones, are kept under very close surveillance, their freedom to operate limited. Many Arab media outlets have been refused permission to open a bureau in Syria. Beirut has in practice become the base from which many media outlets cover Syria.

Syrian President Bashar el-Assad is on the Reporters Without Borders list of the world's 38 "Press Freedom Predators."

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