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Brutal crackdown on media continues

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 21 December 2011 - To describe 2011 as a turbulent year for Syria would be an understatement. As other regimes in the Arab world have fallen, President Bashar al-Assad has ruthlessly clung to power. At every step, media attempts to shed light on developments have been thwarted. The government has cracked down on local journalists and denied access to most foreign ones.

According to Ghias Aljundi, an exiled Syrian activist, "after the beginning of the Syrian revolution on 15 March 2011, press freedom suffered additional restrictions and dozens of journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tortured for . . . writing pieces about what it is happening inside Syria." He added: "There are documented reports that the arrested journalists have been tortured and forced to write articles in which they had to deny that there were protests in the country. Opposition websites have been blocked or hacked by the state-backed Syrian Electronic Army."

On the one hand, the Syrian government controls the media and uses it to boost its own legitimacy, but the current level of protests and uprisings, and the avenues for information-sharing opened up by social media developments, have made it impossible to fully stifle the flow of news.

According to the United Nations, more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprisings started in March in Syria. In a number of moves to bolster his legitimacy, President Assad has made various changes to laws regarding the press. In April 2011, Assad removed an emergency law which allowed the state to control the media. In June, a few select foreign journalists were allowed to enter Syria, after having applied for, and successfully obtained, a visa. IPI reported on the numerous challenges faced by these journalists. President Assad passed a law earlier in August easing the tight regulations for journalists, making it more difficult to arrest or ban them. In October, Assad claimed that fundamental freedoms of the media must be recognised and article 11 of the decree states: "Any attack on a journalist will be treated as an attack on a Syrian government official."

Whilst these reforms are designed to create the impression that journalists are free to report in Syria, the reality is grimly different. According to a report by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, entitled "Crackdown on Media Workers in Syria", 114 human rights violations took place against 99 journalists, bloggers and intellectuals between February and October 2011. The report details how journalists are intimidated and harassed because of their reports on the uprisings in Syria. It is unclear how many journalists and bloggers have been detained as many appear to have simply disappeared.

"Local journalists have been banned from moving within Syria and many of them have been interrogated or arrested for trying to visit other Syrian cities," activist Aljundi said. "The majority of Syrian journalists, who reported on the recent events in Syria, were exposed to a defamation campaign by the state-owned media or through pro-regime websites. As Syria is completely closed down to any reliable media or journalists, many of the Syrian journalists had to flee the country for their safety."

Even the few foreign journalists allowed to enter Syria have been restricted in terms of what they have been allowed to cover and where they have been allowed to go. For example, foreign journalists have been unable to cover the anti-government protests in Homs. Often, they were just given the state-sanctioned versions of stories.

With the lack of representative reporting in Syria and foreign media restricted, there has been a huge increase in blogs and so-called 'citizen reporting', but even amateur journalists are in danger. Security forces are targeting those with mobile phones at anti-government protests. They are also seeking to gather information about pro-democracy bloggers and protestors and flooding Facebook and Twitter pages of the opposition with pro-Assad messages.

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Click here for the full report

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