Mass media in Syria are restricted in respect of licensing and the freedom of publication. The authorities continue restricting licensing magazines, newspapers, TV channels and broadcasting stations. Official mass media are still dominant in all fields. As to the magazines, newspapers and TV channels that were instituted during the few past years, most of them avoid discussing political issues in order to survive. The unique exceptional example is that of al-Dumari newspaper, which was the first independent newspaper in Syria after 38 years of banning independent press; namely, since 8 March 1963, when the Baath Party assumed power in a military coupe. The result, however, was that within a short period the newspaper ceased terminally because of the political and economic restrictions practised by the Ministry of Information and the governmental establishment in charge of distributing newspapers and magazines.
As to the majority of the magazines and newspapers that started to be published in the country during the few past years, they are void of political subjects, and overwhelmed by social issues, with the exception of some mass media that are owned by influential figures, such as the magazine “White and Black”, whose publisher is Bilal Hasan Torkmani (the son of the Minister of Defense) and the TV channel “al-Dunya”, which is owned by Rami Makhluf (the cousin of the President). They both handle political issues and publish news. As to the ”Shaam (Levant)” channel, which is owned by Akram al-Jundi, it was compelled to cease a few hours after its official broadcasting in October 2006, after broadcasting the news. It had to depart to broadcast from the City of Media Production in Egypt.
The restrictions extend to cover the new media, i.e., the websites. The list of blocked websites is increasingly expanding. The Governmental Communication Establishment prohibits the users of the Internet to have access to such websites as are not favoured by the Authority. Prohibition does not involve only political or opponent websites but it covers some non-opponent websites when, in what they publish, they step over the red lines drawn by the monitor, which are unknown because they are not published. Among such websites are the ones run by Baathist activists, or youth websites (such as “Shabablak” website, which has been recently banned. It is a social youth forum visited by more than 50 thousand members, and is not designated as opponent). A well-known journalist in Syria declared in the aftermath of blocking the famous website of “Face Book” lately that no websites remain in Syria but those of Sana, Tashreen, al-Thawrah, the Ministry of Information, the People’s Council and some indecent websites. As to the websites of political parties, the opposition, human rights organisations and news websites, they have all been blocked.
The Syrian authorities have issued strict instructions to the owners of the Internet cafes requiring that they keep precise information about their visitors, including the identity of the persons, their residence, the electronic websites they visited while they were in the cafe, the numbers of the booths they sat at and the numbers of the equipment they used. These pieces of information shall then be presented to the official bodies when demanded, which will facilitate the arrest of any person visiting banned websites, the owners of the cafes being responsible. Moreover, communications via the Internet are banned, for they are not subject to the telephone monitoring imposed by the Syrian authorities on the entire telephone network.
The international organisations that defend the freedom of the press designate the Syrian Regime as the most inimical to the Internet in the world. Besides banning and blocking the websites and monitoring their visitors, the Syrian authorities detained dozens of citizens during the current year just for trying to browse websites blocked in Syria.
The authorities base their repression of media freedoms on legislative decree No. 50, which the Syrian President Bashar al-Asad issued on 22 July 2001. The decree represents the new law of publications in Syria that has replaced the old decree that was issued on 8 October 1949.
The long-awaited law permits the publication of printed materials that are not subject to the monitoring of the State and granting licenses to issue periodical materials, but it imposes numerous restrictions on publishing. It imposes severe penalties on offenders. The opponents deprived of their civil rights are denied licenses. Decree No. 50 regulates the work of printing houses, bookshops and publishing houses, the procedures of granting licenses for periodicals, forbidden publications, the crimes of publication and the relevant principles of trials. The Decree did not introduce anything new when it allowed individuals and judicial persons to publish periodicals according to a number of conditions, for the former law of 1949 had granted licenses for periodicals according to almost the same conditions. But this aspect has been practically ineffective since the Baathist Party assumed power in 1963.
The Decree grants the Prime Minister wide jurisdiction to deny licensing newspapers. It is strict with the contents of publications, and its penalties are directly applied to the journalists and what they publish.
The executive authority in Syria is entitled to interpret and apply the law in matters of publication as it wishes. Offenders can be sentenced to penalties ranging from 10 days to three years in prison. Monetary fine may amount to one million Syrian Liras (more than $20000). Offending newspapers are punished by barring their issue for a period ranging from one week to six months, in addition to the penalties stated in the valid laws, while the party who is responsible for any publication that calls for changing the constitution of the state through non-constitutional means is punished by withdrawing its license in addition to the stated penalties. The Minister of Information is entitled to withdraw the press identification card from the journalist if he refuses to make known “a responsible source” to which press information has been attributed. The Government claims that it seeks to amend the law of publications so as to cover the new media. Consequently, it is expected that the restriction and ban imposed on the Internet websites will be regulated by the law, rather than leaving the matter to those in charge of communications to deal with each case separately.
In this respect the Syrian authorities dismissed the special correspondent of Agence France Presse (AFP) to Syria (Joil Bsul) on 7 August 2006, without the spokesman of the Ministry of Information giving a justification for that except that he behaved according to the instructions of the Ministry of Interior.
On 7 September 2006, the press apprentice Muhannad Abul-Rahman was arrested because of his work as a journalist, and, simultaneously with him, the journalist ‘Ala al-Deen Hamdoon was arrested, and then both of them were released on 22 September 2006, but their case remained before the military judiciary till 25 September 2007, when the court dismissed the case as invalid for absence of a crime.
On 2/12/2007, the Ministry of Information issued a memorandum instructing no cooperation to be extended to the journalist Wadhah Muhhiddin, as a result of his documented reports on a major corruption scandal in Aleppo involving a number of high-ranking officials.