Syria’s press laws are unabashedly restrictive with the result of near absolute control over the media. Last year Syria was ranked 159th out of 173 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. It is number three in list of the world’s worst web oppressors.
The Ba’ath Party’s 5th congress in 1971 established the principle of a centralised media. Under the current press law, adopted in 2001, journalists can be jailed if they ‘attack the state’s prestige or dignity, national unity or army morale (…) the national economy (…) or the security of the currency.’ To be able to operate, news media must apply for a license directly to the prime minister’s office.
Only recently has the government begun to legislate online news and Internet use.
A few of the more prominent incidents involving Kurdish journalists, writers, or bloggers include:
Mesud Hamid (2003)
One of the better-known cases of repression against Kurdish journalism occurred when Mesud Hamid, a then 29-year-old Kurdish journalism student, posted photos of a demonstration on the German-based Kurdish Website Amude. The demonstration took place outside UNICEF’s Damascus office. Kurdish demonstrators, both children and their parents, were demanding respect for the civil and political rights of Syria’s Kurdish population. The police came and violently broke up the gathering, arresting seven of the parents.
One month later on 24 July 2003, public security officers arrested Hamid while he was taking an exam at Damascus University. They handcuffed him and dragged him out of the exam room in front of the other students; a clear warning to future journalists taking the exam with him.
He was held in solitary confinement at ‘Adra Prison for one year before he was allowed to see either a lawyer or any family members. During that time he was tortured and interrogators beat the soles of his feet with studded whips.
On 10 October 2004 the Supreme State Security Council sentenced Hamid to three years in prison after finding him guilty of ‘membership of a secret organisation’ and having ‘attempted to annex part of Syrian territory to another country.’ The are the charges most frequently levelled against detained Kurds in Syria.
Hamid is now living in France.
Muhamed Ghanem (2004, 2006)
Ghanem was arrested on 31 March 2006 and released on 01 October of the same year. His charge was posting articles on his pro-Kurdish website, Suriyoun (Syrians). Ghanem has written many articles advocating political and cultural rights for Syria’s Kurdish minority.
According to the information received at that time, Ghanem was accused of publishing ‘false news about pretended violations being done against human rights in Syria’ on his Website, ‘weakening the nation’s spirit by publishing false news on Syria’s internal situation’ and ‘working to split the Syrian homeland.’
The second charge was linked with the articles and reports that Ghanem published on his website about corruption and repression in Syria, while the third accusation would be the result of his articles supporting the cultural and political rights of the Kurdish minority in Syria. Ghanem is one of the Syrian Arab intellectuals who support the Kurdish community in Syria to get their political and cultural rights recognized.
In 2004 he was arrested following the publication of an article on violent clashes between Kurds, Arab tribes and security forces in Qamishlo. He was held for 25 days by military intelligence.
Ghanem lives in al-Raqqa and was dismissed from the school where he taught for 30 years.
Ibrahim Zoro (2007)
Kurdish human rights activist Ibrahim Zoro, who regularly posts material on foreign-based opposition websites, was held for 23 days in April 2007 in Damascus.
Zoro is no stranger to Syrian prisons. He spent seven years in detention (1987 to 1994) for belonging to the Syrian Communist Party. He is also a member of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, Freedom and Human Rights in Syria.
Reporters without Borders said that the agents who arrested Zoro were ‘as always, acting quite illegally’ and his family had not been told why he was picked up or where he was being held. ‘It is more like a kidnapping than an arrest,’ the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
At the time of his arrest Zoro was helping to organise a seminar called ‘The Philosophy of Lies.’ He has posted many articles in Arabic on websites such as the blog Tharwa and Mengos.
Faruq Haji Mustafa (2009)
Mustafa, a Syrian Kurdish journalist and writer, was ordered to visit the political security office in Aleppo on 05 April 2009 where he was arrested by political security officers, according to the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKeyes), a Lebanon-based regional press freedom watchdog, and regional news reports.
Before his arrest, Mustafa told SKeyes that he had met with a German journalist and directly following that he had received multiple summonses to go to the political security office. Mustafa has not been heard of since his arrest, a colleague, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, told the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.
His detention and the secrecy surrounding it violate his basic right to access to legal council.
Mustafa has written for regional media outlets such as the Syrian Al-Watan, the London-based pan-Arab Al-Hayat, and the Lebanon-based Al-Safir.
Hoşeng Osê (2009)
This Kurdish journalist has been hiding somewhere between Syria and Lebanon for months. He has been harassed and threatened by Syrian security forces. From his hideout, and with the help of his brother, Hoşeng is able to send two articles to Kurdish and Lebanese newspapers every week.
In an effort to reach a peace deal between Syria and Israel, the United States and most European countries have toned down their criticism of Syria’s human rights record and curbs on freedom of expression. As a result Syrian authorities have tightened their grip on the media and Internet.
In 2005 Syria’s Ministry of Communications imposed new rules on Internet café owners, ordering them to obtain identification from all computer users, and to submit customer names and their times of use to the authorities at a regular basis.
‘With Syria breaking free from its isolation, the need is greater than ever to ease the mighty censorship and grip over the media, which have only contributed to spreading ignorance and corruption,’ Mazen Darwich, head of the Syrian Media Centre, told Reuters.
A new report entitled ‘Syrian pens fall silent’ shows that 225 Internet sites were blocked last year (2008), up from 159 in 2007. The sites include several Arab newspapers and portals, Amazon, Facebook and YouTube. Twenty one percent of the sites banned were Kurdish and 15 percent are run by Syrian opposition groups. The Websites of Kurdish political parties and organisations are extensively blocked.
Reporters Without Borders’ concerns about online free expression in Syria have increased as a result of an informal meeting on 10 May 2009 of the committee tasked with drafting a new press law. While the press law would continue to be subject to the criminal code, the proposed changes would extend its penalties to Internet users.
The press freedom organisation added: ‘We call for the withdrawal of this proposed reform which, if adopted, would reinforce the marked decline in the Syrian media, and we reiterate our call for the decriminalization of press offences.’
New study documents the world’s ten worst web oppressors, Menassat, 04 May 2009
Kurdish cyber-dissident held in secret for nearly a week; two others still in prison, IFEX, 11 April 2007
Syrian journalist held incommunicado, another on trial, Committee to Protect Journalists, 22 April 2009
Oweis, Khaled Yacoub, Syria tightens control on media, Internet, CIOL News, 05 May 2009
Proposed press law reform poses new threat to Internet, Reporters without Borders, 19 May 2009
Al-Bunni, Akram (2008). Syria’s Crisis of Expression, (.pdf report), Arab Insights.
Pro-Kurdish website editor freed after six months in prison, Reporters without Borders, 10 March 2006.
False Freedom: Syria, 14 November 2005, Human Rights Watch.
Judicial proceedings – SYR 002 / 0406 / OBS 046.1, 11 April 2006, FIDH