Censors ease up on Syrian press

New information minister encourages more critical media in a country known for its censored press.

Long scorned as tools of state propaganda, Syria's print and television media are experiencing the most thorough shake-up in more than four decades.

Journalists are growing bolder as traditional red lines blur, taboos are broken, and fear of imprisonment over printing material critical of the regime recedes. Although censorship still exists, the easing of restrictions is giving new freedom to journalists and paving the way for a more robust media.

Unusually, the impetus for change is coming from Syria's recently appointed information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah, a former newspaper editor.

"This is new, this is very new," says Ziad Haydar, Damascus correspondent of the Al-Arabiya Arabic satellite channel and Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper.

The changes rippling through the Syrian media were illustrated last month with the publication in Syria's Tishreen newspaper of an article containing unprecedented criticism of the feared mukhabarat, or secret intelligence service.

The author, independent journalist Hakam al-Baba, described in the article the treatment he received from the mukhabarat three years ago after writing an article deploring the lack of press freedom in Syria.

"I spent over two weeks with one of the security [agencies], every day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., during which I listened to threats, warnings, accusations, and interrogation regarding [my] connections," he wrote.

Mr. al-Baba's article was published with the approval of Mr. Dakhlallah, even though it also singled out the information minister for criticism. The article, which was condemned by regime supporters, had been destined for publication in the more liberal Lebanese press on the assumption that it would be censured in Syria.

"I think Dakhlallah wanted it published in Syria because it would have more impact here," al-Baba says.

Syria's press has been regarded as little more than a banal mouthpiece for the state since the 1963 coup by the ruling Baath Party. The state's stranglehold on the media began to loosen in the wake of Bashar al-Assad becoming president in 2000. In 2002, the first privately owned political weekly, Abyad wa Aswad (White and Black), was granted a license and has since become a keen critic of government performance. "The general trend is for change now.... If we want this country to progress, we have to focus on the bad points," says Ayman al-Daquq, who edits the magazine.

Two years ago, satellite dishes became legal, granting Syrians access to television channels from around the world. The number of foreign magazines and newspapers distributed in Syria has almost doubled.

But the pace of change increased from October following a cabinet reshuffle. The new interior minister, Ghazi Kenaan, a former general in military intelligence, voiced what most Syrians thought when he declared the local press "unreadable."

Mr. Dakhlallah, former editor of Al-Baath, the mouthpiece of the Baath Party, began telephoning journalists and urging them to adopt a bolder approach, taking the traditionally cautious Syrian reporters by surprise.

Mr. Haydar of Al-Arabiya says that for the first time he is free to record interviews with people from banned political parties on previously taboo subjects. "They say how they want to abolish the security law, free political prisoners, see the return of exiles, and hold free elections," he says. "I don't feel the tension while working anymore. I can go on air at any moment and talk about anything."

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.]

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."

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