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Syrian bloggers brace for fresh blow to Middle East press freedom

A Syrian law awaiting parliamentary approval is one of a raft of measures across the region to clamp down on a surge in Internet activity over the past decade.

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But Syria is ranked even worse than Egypt on this year's annual press freedom chart by Reporters without Borders. The international organization based in Paris put Syria at 173 out of 178 countries, just behind Sudan and China, and beating out only Iran and a handful of others.

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Defamation is concern, say governments

Syrian websites espousing harsh political criticism, such as All4Syria, are blocked along with some human rights and social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook – although most Syrians use proxy software to access them. Many publications are subject to censorship.

But this is not a complete picture, say analysts. Taleb Kadi Amin, director of the Arab Radio & TV training center in Damascus and former deputy information minister, says the Syrian law is part of a global trend to regulate the Internet and deal with negative effects such as violations of copyright law.

“This law is simply designed to tell online journalists that they are responsible for what they write,” he says. “Many websites copy and paste material and publish defamatory or untrue material, often anonymously, and there is currently no mechanism to deal with it.”

“It is not about limiting freedom of expression but giving support to legitimate online journalists and increasing people's rights not to be defamed,” he added.

But such laws include a risk of abuse, say analysts. “The challenge is promulgating a law that cannot be used to silence dissent,” says Professor Hamdy.

More anxiety for journalists

Syrian bloggers claim the new regulations will lead them to self-censor, write anonymously, or leave the country, which will lower their credibility, but some say the law will have little consequence.

“The Internet is almost impossible to police and Syria and other countries already mete out penalties without a specific law,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University. “It will, however, add another layer of anxiety for journalists.”

Professor Landis, operator of the blog Syria Comment, adds that it was in the interest of all countries to have a free press, including Syria.

“It is necessary for the economic liberalization desired by Syria,” he says. “Many officials realize that debating difficult topics such as the removal of subsidies and salary disparities is more likely to get people onside with painful but needed reforms.”

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