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Senior officials systematically suppress dissenting voices

(RSF/IFEX) - What is happening to press freedom in Syria? It is hard to know because many journalists refuse to speak either on the record or anonymously for fear of being identified by the intelligence services. The few accounts emerging confirm that press freedom violations by the authorities have become systematic. Blogger Kareem Arbaji's three-year jail sentence and the closure of journalist Mazen Darwich's office on 13 September 2009 are the latest evidence. The website of the Skeyes Centre, a Beirut-based NGO that defends press freedom and culture in the Middle East, also became inaccessible to Syrian Internet users on 14 September, according to several sources in Syria.

"Repression has been stepped up considerably since the start of the summer," Reporters Without Borders said. "Under intelligence agency influence, the information ministry has been conducting a series of interrogations and arrests of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists."

The press freedom organisation added: "The journalists have been questioned about articles that are said to constitute "an attack on the nation" or threaten "state security." The summonses and the closures of their offices have left them feeling confused and harassed."

A freelance journalist who heads the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression, Mazen Darwich said the closure of his office was carried out by intelligence officials accompanied by police, who confiscated all of its contents.

"I received no warning or prior caution from the authorities," he said in a press release. "These retaliatory measures confirm that attempts are being made to stifle press freedom and free expression (. . .); a systematic policy based on the violation of Syrian citizens' constitutional rights and basic freedoms."

The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression is the country's only NGO specialising in media issues, Internet access and media monitoring during election campaigns. Operating without a government permit, it has until now monitored violations of journalists' rights. It recently took the lead in condemning the information minister's bans on the dissemination of many newspapers and magazines.

Prior to the closure the Centre reported that the number of news and information websites blocked in Syria has increased to 241. They include 49 Kurdish sites, 35 opposition sites, 22 Lebanese sites, 15 human rights sites and nine cultural sites. The General Telecommunications Company and the Syrian Scientific Association for Information are jointly responsible for blocking websites inside Syria.

The blogger Kareem Arbaji received his three-year jail sentence on 13 September from the state security supreme court in Damascus on a charge of "publishing mendacious information liable to weaken the nation's morale" under article 296 of the criminal code.

Held in pre-trial detention for more than two years, ever since his arrest on 6 July 2007 by military intelligence officers, Arbaji used to help run Akhawia, an online forum where all kinds of subjects were discussed. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said it was what he posted online that prompted his arrest and conviction.

The closure of Darwich's office and Arbaji's conviction are just the latest in a long list of recent press freedom violations in Syria.

The Damascus bureau of the privately-owned satellite TV station Al Mashreq was arbitrarily closed by the security services on 29 July. The bureau of Alep, the third most popular TV station in Syria (after Al Sham and Al Dunia), was closed in a similar fashion a few days later. The station continues to broadcast but its journalists can no longer work in Syria.

"This is a sad and strange situation," the station's production chief, Mohammed Abdel Rahim, told Reporters Without Borders. "No reason was given for this closure but that is not surprising." Rahim left Damascus on 7 September after unsuccessful negotiations with the authorities in an attempt to get the bureau reopened.

The authorities summoned most of Al Mashreq's employees and asked them to sign statements that they no longer worked for Live Point, the company that is Al Mashreq's biggest shareholder. The station's modern programmes about the Syrian public's day-to-day concerns had been a big success.

On 13 August, information minister Mohsen Bilal announced that freelance journalist Ibrahim Al Jaban was banned from working for Syrian state satellite TV station Al Suriya and from producing the programmes in the Al 'Alama Al Fariqa (Distinctive Feature) series. No reason was given.

Al 'Alama Al Fariqa's distinctive feature was its host's bold questions. The broadcasting of several of its episodes was delayed or banned. The last programme, on 7 August, consisted of an interview with Suleiman Haddad, the head of the Council of the People foreign relations committee and an old friend of Bilal's.

A Baath Party member, Haddad talked about the party's past prior to 1970, when Hafez al-Assad became president, referring to the disputes between the late president and other party leaders such as Salah Jadid, who was jailed from 1970 until his death in 1994 and who never had access to the Syrian media. It was Bilal himself who banned the programme from being broadcast.

"I do not know what motivated the minister's decision to put an end to Al 'Alama Al Fariqa," Jaban said.

Syria was ranked 159th out of 173 countries in the 2008 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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