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Ahead of Assad's visit to France, RSF urges Sarkozy to address free expression situation in Syria

(RSF/IFEX) - 8 December 2010 - Reporters Without Borders has written to French President Nicolas Sarkozy about the deterioration in freedom of expression in Syria because he is due to meet with Syrian President Bashar el-Assad when Assad makes an official visit to France tomorrow.

President Nicolas Sarkozy
Elysée Palace
55 rue Faubourg Saint Honoré
75008 Paris

Paris, 7 December 2010

Dear President Sarkozy,

In advance of your lunch with Syrian President Bashar el-Assad on 9 December, Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization, would like to draw your attention to the deterioration in freedom of expression in Syria.

President Assad has often talked of political openings since taking office in 2000 but political and legislative reforms are at a standstill. A state of emergency suspending the Syrian constitution's provisions as regards civil liberties has been in effect since 1963. The number of news media has increased but media diversity has not. The Baath Party maintains a tight grip on news and information. Syria's return to the international stage has not changed that.

There is complete lack of transparency about social and political developments in Syria. It is extremely difficult for international human rights NGOs to gather information. The population lives in constant fear of the security services, especially the Mukhabarat (the intelligence services), which have transformed Syria into a vast prison.

The repression was stepped up significantly in the second half of 2009. Encouraged by the intelligence services, the information ministry began interrogating and arresting human rights activists, lawyers and journalists. Many were questioned about articles that were said to constitute "an attack on the nation" or "threat to state security." Few dared to talk about this, even anonymously. The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed on 13 September 2009 and its office was placed under seal. Headed by Mazen Darwish, it was the country's only NGO that specialised in monitoring the media and the Internet.

Arrested on 17 December 2007 for signing the Damascus Declaration, writer and journalist Ali Abdallah should have been released on 16 June of this year on completing a 30-month jail sentence. But the authorities kept him in detention because of an article by him – posted online on 23 August 2009, while he was in prison – that criticized Iran's "wilayat al-faqih" doctrine, which gives the country's clerics absolute power over political affairs.

He was initially charged with "publishing false information with the aim of harming the state" (under article 286 of the criminal code) and "intending to harm Syria's relations with another state" (under article 276 of the criminal code). But a Damascus military court brought new charges against him that were confirmed by the country's highest appeal court on 1 December, and he is now facing a new jail sentence. The case is particularly worrying as it shows that it is dangerous for journalists to criticise not only the government but also its allies.

Meanwhile, Tal Al-Mallouhi, a young student and blogger, has been held for nearly a year. Arrested by the intelligence services at the end of December 2009, she was finally taken before the High State Security Court, a special tribunal whose verdicts cannot be appealed, on 10 November. Reportedly accused of spying on behalf of the United States, she is being held in solitary confinement in Duma prison, near Damascus.

We would also like to draw your attention to an Internet communications bill that was drafted at the behest of Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri and was approved by the cabinet at the end of October. It would allow the authorities to try online journalists before criminal courts and would allow the police or any other "judicial auxiliary" to enter editorial offices to arrest journalists suspected of contravening the law and to seize their computers. Despite the widespread censorship, news websites had emerged in recent years but this bill is clearly designed to impose additional restrictions on the flow of online information.

Syria is ranked 173rd out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is on our list of "Enemies of the Internet" because it has blocked hundreds of websites and because it hounds netizens. President Assad is regarded as one of the world's 40 "Predators of press freedom."

Because of your central role in the resumption of dialogue with the Syrian government as part of the promotion of the Union for the Mediterranean, you can be a particularly effective spokesman for the defence of the fundamental rights of Syrians. Reporters Without Borders would therefore like to ask you to intercede with your Syrian counterpart and request the release of these journalists and netizens and the withdrawal of legal provisions designed to criminalize online free expression. Economic relations with Syria should not be developed to the detriment of civil liberties including media freedom and free speech.

I thank you in advance for the attention you give to these requests.


Jean-François Julliard

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