Syria’s ‘Totalitarian’ Stance On Media

Syria’s leading independent human rights group, The National Organization of Human Rights in Syria issued it’s 2006 Annual Report in late-March. Among the highlights, according to an English-language translation provided to World Politics Review by the group’s spokesman Ammar Qurabi, was this assertion about media freedoms in Syria:

Press and media freedoms made no progress in Syria this year. Indeed, these freedoms saw a clear decline through systemizing the mono-dimension throughout all media sources, and returning to the usage of totalitarian approach in the detention of writers and journalists … Syrian authorities have full control over mass media such as television and radio, and such media are under severe censorship, which is why they lack creativity and credibility for the viewers who watched the foreign media. …The state guarantees the freedom of the press, of printing, and publication in accordance with the law. Yet all newspapers in Syria are state-run newspapers serving the ruling parties only to express their opinions and criticize the government policies and corruption.

The 132-page report, which has been cited by various organizations and Web sites in recent days but does not appear to be posted in full anywhere on the Internet, honed in on the arrest of renowned 66-year-old journalist and activist Michel Kilo, and the fallout over the Damascus-Beirut Declaration, as a signature event of the year.

Between May 14 and 18, security agents arrested 12 signatories of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration, a petition which called for the normalization of Syria-Lebanon relations. Those arrested were key civil society activist and intellectual Michel Kilo; writer and human rights activist Nidal Darwish, a member of the Committee for the Defense of Liberty and Human Rights; prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni; Atassi Forum member Muhammed Mahfouz; Mahmoud Muri’, a member of the Arab Human Rights Organization; Mahmoud Issa, a member of the Communist Action Party; Ghaleb Amar, a member of the Socialist Arab Democratic Union and human rights activist; Kurdish Future Movement leader Khalil Hussein; National Democratic Front activist Suleiman al-Shummar; Communist Action Party member Muhammed Safwan Tayfour; Abbas Abbas, an activist from the town of Musiaf; and Khaled Khalifa, who was reportedly arrested on the basis of mistaken identity. Abbas and Khalifa were released one day after their arrest, according to local and international human rights organizations.The other 10 men faced five charges of the criminal code, including weakening the national morale, awakening sectarian rows, and publishing false news that might affect the state’s dignity. According to local and international human rights organizations, Bunni, Darwish, and Mahfouz were beaten a number of times by state security agents during their initial detention, prior to their transfer to Adra prison. In mid-July Muri’, Darwish, Tayfour, and Amar were released on bail after publishing a statement saying they had not signed the Declaration. In September Mahfouz, Issa, Hussein, and Shummar were also released on bail. Issa was then re-arrested on October 23. At year’s end no trial dates had been set for any of the 10 men.

Kilo’s arrest has attracted worldwide attention, particularly from such groups as the Committee to Protect Journalists, which issued this decree calling for his release last May. Kilo did apparently appear in court in Damascus recently, according to this reflective March 25 piece about the security and media freedoms situation in Syria by The Toronto Star’s Middle East Bureau Chief Mitch Potter.

The National Organization on Human Rights in Syria report, meanwhile, came out about week before U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat, led a delegation to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Pelosi, who made the trip as Democrats and Republicans in Washington have been fighting over a Democrat-backed bill to set a time-line for a U.S. troop withdrawal form Iraq (which neighbors Syria), announced on April 4 that the Syrian leader was ready to hold peace talks with Israel, according to a report by Reuters.

Pelosi’s trip to Syria was criticized by the White House., a leading blog on Syria-related news, offered one perspective on the Pelosi trip, as well as background on the Beirut-Damascus Declaration.

UPDATE: Michael Young, the editorial page editor for the Beirut Daily Star, offered a different perspective on Pelosi’s trip in “When a Dilettante Takes on Hizbullah.”