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Syria today : online and hard-line

The last six years have seen an Internet explosion in Syria. Close to 1 million of the country's 18 million people are now online, compared with just 30,000 in 2000, when President Bashar Assad ascended to power. Syrian writers are churning out blogs, news and commentary Web sites in a fashion that - at first glance - seems to show that Assad is committed to building the "contemporary and progressive" society he spoke of upon coming to power.

But paradoxes abound when it comes to the Internet in Syria, and a closer look reveals an authoritarian state apparently obsessed with manipulating the content of independent Web sites. While the government claims to be intent on spreading information technology to the masses, its desire to extend traditionally heavy-handed media restrictions into cyberspace raises the question of whether Syria's rulers merely seek to use the Internet as a tool to enhance their own power.

For instance, when I visited Damascus last year, Amr Nazir Salem, the minister of telecommunications and technology, told me that the Champress site (www.champress.net) would be "a great [one] to check out." As a locally produced independent Web site, he assured me, it was an example of Syria's advances in media freedom. I dismissed his advice at first, but my interest was later piqued when I attempted to load Champress and found only a blank page.

Syrian authorities block Web sites - pro-Israel and hyper-Islamist ones, those run by the illegal Muslim Brotherhood, and those calling for autonomy for Syrian Kurds. But this didn't make sense when it came to Champress, one of the sites a minister was recommending I visit. Days later, the site suddenly became available again and turned out to be an aggregation of material from Arabic newspapers, plus a mixture of original editorials and local news. It's among the most popular sites in Syria, according to its founder, Ali Jamalo, who says it receives about 30,000 visitors a day.

Why had it been suddenly inaccessible? When I met Jamalo, a rugged sort in his late 40s who, prior to running Champress, led a gritty career as a war correspondent for Syrian state television, he explained that, initially, he believed the crash had been caused by a technical problem. It was not until his site had been down for several hours that Syria's information minister informed him that a story posted on the site "had upset several senior government officials."

"What was the story?" I asked Jamalo.

"I have no comment," he responded. "I now have a deal with the government not to speak about this."

Jamalo's unwillingness to elaborate only raised more questions. After I had met with him, several intellectuals told me that Jamalo had ties to the government's sprawling and secretive security apparatus. "He's practically mukhabarat," whispered one. Many of those I spoke to made me promise not to use their name, as they wondered aloud how else - in a country where the media is almost entirely owned and distributed by the government - Web sites like Champress could be allowed to exist.

Perhaps the Internet is an example of how media freedom is growing in Syria. But there are still forbidden topics, and Reporters Without Borders still ranks Syria as "one of the worst offenders against Internet freedom."

To begin to understand why, you have to consider the environment within which Assad has ruled. After the 2000 death of his father Hafez, who controlled Syria for 30 years, media freedom blossomed on the Internet and in new private magazines. Known as the "Damascus spring," the period was initiated by Bashar Assad's inaugural address, in which he announced: "There is no doubt that transparency is an important thing."

But the new freedoms were crushed when it became clear that the United States would invade neighboring Iraq. Assad, apparently fearing for the stability of his regime, swiftly reintroduced the practices of closing magazines and jailing journalists, activists, and opposition figures.

The current ambiguity of the government's stance toward freedom on the Internet reflects the generally ambiguous nature of Assad. While he appears to make no qualms about embracing the same hard-line approach to controlling public speech and opinion as that implemented by his father, the young president is permitting, perhaps even encouraging, the spread of such technology as the Internet. The best evidence of Assad's desire to expand Internet use in Syria was the appointment of Salem, who formerly worked as a senior program manager at Microsoft's US headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Yet, while Salem's resume may make him among the most modern-minded characters in Assad's regime, even he appears to have a hankering for dark-age-era thinking when it comes to the issue of censorship. "Basically," he told me, "Syria is currently under attack - we have to admit that - by several powers, and if somebody writes, or publishes or whatever, something that supports the attack, they will be tried."

It's no secret that in Syria the authorities have long clamped down on free speech by maintaining ownership and control over the media. What is worth noting though, is how the Internet is opening an unprecedented haven for public discourse - even if it's a discourse coming primarily in the form of anonymous comments posted by readers on private news-and-commentary Web sites subject to tinkering by the authorities.

A posting on one such site last year found a reader who was angry about censorship urging the country's rulers to "loosen your hold on people's thoughts." Using the name "a transparent Syrian," the reader asked: "When are we going to talk about freedom and democracy and transparency?"

Guy Taylor is an editor at World Politics Watch (worldpoliticswatch.com). He has reported from Syria with support from the Stanley Foundation. This commentary, written for THE DAILY STAR, is adapted from a longer article in Reason magazine.

Marseille,03 12 2007
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