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Syria: Ministry introduce website censorship measures

BBC Monitoring

Text of report by Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir website on 3 August

Those working in the field of internet publishing were fighting the "ghosts" of censorship - given the lack of any Syrian law that organizes their work - when they received a blow from where they did not expect. For more than a year, the Information Ministry has not spared any effort to reassure them, and it is promising them a new media law, "which will be issued soon," and will include clear provisions on the electronic media.

The justification for the delay is that the ministry does not want any haste that could produce a flawed law. However, and amid this delay, "a new player" came out: The Ministry of Telecommunications and Technology. The latter issued a decision, which drove the owners of the Syrian websites crazy, and they came out to oppose and defy [the decision].

In its circular, the Telecommunications Ministry says: "We ask the owners of the Syrian websites to exercise accuracy and objectivity (...) [ellipsis as published] and to post the ! name of the writer of an article and the one who comments on it in a clear and detailed manner. The failure to do so would result in warning the website owner and rendering his website temporarily inaccessible. In case the violation is repeated, the website will become permanently inaccessible."

The ministry justifies its circular by saying that some articles and commentaries, without being coupled with evidence and attributed to certain persons, include "lies and expressions that run counter to the ethics of speech and that annoy others, which make them publicly committed crimes of defamation and violation of public morals." The ministry said that that "encroaches upon the credibility of the websites that post such articles on the one hand and creates confusion in the society on the other". For the Syrians, the demand that the name be revealed means a threat, which is a purely security tradition.

Those working in the field of internet publishing are now! fed-up. Colleague Khalid Sumaysim, chief editor of the Syria Life web site, says that the decision is "an attempt to restrict the freedoms of the journalists and ordinary people". He noted that requesting the posting of the personal profiles of website writers or commentators "make them refrain from expressing their opinions about any issue, and their opinions will therefore be kept absent, and they will desert the Syrian websites".

He expressed surprise that the Telecommunications Ministry designated itself as a censor although the Information Ministry did not interfere in this context. To prove his viewpoint, Sumaysim explained that when he asked those who write in the website he runs to reveal their true names, "they completely refused that". This is despite the fact that, as he said, "the decision is useless because anyone can post a comment using a pseudonym and send a fake email address".

The Kulluna Shuraka [We Are All Partners] electronic newsletter was the first Syrian website, which has lately been blocked. The superviso! rs of the newsletter are preparing to launch a website carrying the same name. Colleague George Kadar, the website's managing editor, believes that the internet publishing issue "cannot be addressed by a decision, and the minister himself said that in all world countries publication is organized by laws, not a decision!" He said that the decision was issued because "some officials were harmed by the comments made by employees in their institutions or ministries".

It is worth noting that the Ministry of Culture faced a concentrated attack by some website commentators following the posting of some articles and reports on the demolition of some areas in Damascus, which were the subject of a long debate as to whether they are of a historical value or not.

The Telecommunications Ministry also received a considerable share of the anger of commentators as a result of the problems from which the Syrian internet network is suffering and the delay in fulfilling the promi! ses for developing it. Kadar says he is not convinced that the decisio n of the Telecommunications Ministry can control the field of internet publishing.

He asks: "Do they want to convince us that they can monitor all the Syrian websites and that they will take the rights of all citizens from among the hundreds of published items and commentaries? This is unless they want to make the website owners spy on their readers, something which does not befit the press work and the professional code of honour."

Some of those working in the internet publishing field are surprised that the Telecommunications Ministry could not stand waiting for the issuance of the new media law and rushed to make a decision, which they considered "crucial" in a field that represented "a very big and actual democratic opportunity for the Syrians".

For his part, Telecommunications Minister Amr Salim told Al-Safir that the decision was made by the cabinet and that "it asked the Telecommunications Ministry to follow it up." He noted that the cabinet "receive! d many complaints (related to commentaries and other things) and there are laws that protect persons against defamation.

The cabinet, therefore, decided to place the internet publishing within the framework of those laws, and it does not have to wait until a new media law is issued." Salim said that the website owners were confused by the content of the decision. He explained that "the freedom of commentary and speech will remain protected, but what is meant by the decision are those commentaries that include defamation, which conflict with the civil law; and those who are harmed have the right to know who caused the harm".

The telecommunications minister stressed that the cabinet law is binding. The decision involves all that is posted on the websites, including commentaries and articles, and does not differentiate between them. Colleague Ali Jamalu, who works in the Sham Press website, got so angry that, in replying to the decision, he said: "Your Excellency ! Minister Amr Salim, with all due respect to you, we disagree with your wish, and we will not comply with your circular.

If you wish to close our website down, you are welcome to do so." Most of those in charge of Syrian internet sites frankly said that they will not comply with the decision, either out of defiance or inability [as published]. It remains to be seen what consequences the binding nature of the decision will have and whether the Information Ministry has heard of what is happening in its territory.

Source: Al-Safir website, Beirut, in Arabic 3 Aug 07



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