Censors ease up on Syrian press
New information minister encourages more critical media in a country known for its censored press.
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The information minister is supervising the restructuring of some media institutions, combining the organizations that publish the Tishreen and Al-Thawra dailies. Reporters at Al-Baath have been told they can no longer copy articles straight from the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency. Al-Thawra is building a fresh reputation for running hard-hitting stories on social issues. [Editor's note: The original version transposed names of the Al-Baath and Tishreen newspapers.]Skip to next paragraph
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Ministers, who once avoided the media, are now obliged to talk to the press. Two weeks ago, Mr Kenaan, the interior minister, gave a statement to the press within an hour of a bomb blast that almost killed a Palestinian militant, an unusually swift reaction from a traditionally cautious regime.
The changes are like a jolt of electricity to older reporters who are finding that holding onto their jobs will depend on future performance. "The old school [of reporters] can't understand the change. Now the good are being singled out from the bad," says Mr. al-Daquq, the editor of Abyad wa Aswad.
In the past, foreign newspapers were banned if they contained reports critical of Syria. But the incidents of censorship have declined, says Sadeq al-Azm, professor of philosophy at Damascus University. "I have been able to buy the papers every day including editions with news on Syria and Iraq that would have been censored or delayed before," he says. "Censorship is much laxer than before."
Still, analysts say the recent progress in liberalizing the media is due to the initiative of individual politicians rather than an institutionalized attempt at reform. For example, the existing publications law forbids opposition members and independent activists from publishing their own newspapers.
Critics note that Abyad wa Aswad, while it takes the government to task, is owned by Bilal Turkmani, the son of the Syrian defense minister, Hassan Turkmani. This gives the magazine a veneer of official approval at odds with its independent status.
"What we have now is a condition of benign tolerance, not legal acceptance. The existing legal framework is, in fact, quite restrictive, and unless it is improved drastically, no true gains can be said to have been made," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst and coordinator of the Tharwa project which seeks to raise awareness of minority groups in the Middle East.
But Dakhlallah says that the changes to the media are not his personal initiative but are part of the government's overall reform package.
"The government of Syria works as a team," he says. "One minister might play a bigger role than another but it's within the general policy of the government." Indeed, he argues that political reforms so far have outstripped the pace of media reform. "I hope that the media reforms can keep up," he says.
But al-Baba, whose article on the mukhabarat helped highlight the recent changes to the media, remains skeptical of the government's intentions. "The improvements have come from external pressure. The government doesn't really want change," he says. "There are some simple features [of reform] but there is no strategic development."