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Syria says no to ‘the Future’

Earlier this week, the London-based Syrian daily Akhbar As-Sharq reported from Damascus on a crackdown by state authorities on internet use in the country.  Though less than six percent of Syria has access to the internet and even less than half of those have access to have an email address, the country has – since the cautious introduction of the internet in 1998 – repeatedly succumbed to its fear of the one media outlet that it can’t fully control by blocking websites, filtering emails, shutting down access points, and even throwing dissident bloggers and online journalists in jail. 

Out of a long list of political, cultural, religious, entertainment and news sites – surprisingly – the only Lebanese online newspaper blocked in Syria is the Hariri-owned daily Al-Mustaqbal.  On some levels, it makes sense that this paper, of all the Lebanese dailies, would be singled out as anathema.  After all, Al-Mustaqbal is one of the most vitriolic and outspoken anti-Syrian publications in the region.  The paper and its affiliated TV station have no qualms about making it clear that they hold Syria and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  

Nasir al-Asa’ad, a managing editor at Al-Mustaqbal, told NOW Lebanon that he has only known about the Syrian ban on his website for two days, but that the ban was a “badge of honor” in this “war targeting pro-independence media in Lebanon – a war against knowledge and free thinking.” 

“We all know that they [the Assad regime] hate the newspaper, Hariri, and all the leaders of the independence movement.”

Asa’ad said that he wasn’t shocked by the ban because many Syrians liked to read Al-Mustaqbal and “because the newspaper provided one opportunity for many Syrian opposition writers to express themselves.”

Though Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and OpenNet have all decried Syria’s oppressive censorship laws in the past, this time it was a local group, The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, which raised the alarm.  The organization told Akhbar As-Sharq (which, incidentally, has been banned in Syria for some time) that the government had “banned an increased number of websites and strengthened its crackdown on free internet use.”  Most of the newly banned sites were Kurdish news sites and cultural forums.  “The blocking of these sites and previous sites,” the organization said, “is considered an obscene violation of the Syrian constitution.” 

However, Article 38 of the Syrian constitution, which guarantees that “every citizen has the right to express his opinion freely and openly by word of mouth, writing, and all other means of expression,” has been suspended since 1963 by an “emergency law.”

Americans joke about how former Vice President Al Gore supposedly claimed to have “invented the internet,” but it seems that Assad has made a similar claim for himself.  On the official website of the Baath Party in Syria, Assad’s bio points out that in 1994 he served as head of the Board of Directors for the Scientific Community of Syrian Information Technologies and that on April 25, 1998, he facilitated the launch of the “network [i.e. the internet] which benefited people in all sectors.”

Since then, the state has poured generous amounts of money into building up the country’s internet infrastructure, but a host of new laws simultaneously propagated by the Public Telecommunications Foundation has made the legal use of the internet nearly impossible.  For a while, citizens even needed an expensive permit to surf the web.  In time, restrictions “lightened” so that individuals who wished to launch a site of their own only needed to be over 25 years of age and have earned a BA.

Internet users were also required to use official state-run email service providers that could be easily monitored by the authorities until millions of dollars were spent to buy hardware from Germany and the Netherlands to monitor and block subversive emails sent through service providers like Hotmail.  Despite the fact that plainclothes policemen were leaning over their shoulders in internet cafes and authorities were supposedly monitoring their email messages, many Syrians were delighted in 2004 to have gained access to Hotmail and MSN.  But on July 17, 2006, the block on Hotmail was reinstated, presumably because Hotmail encryption techniques had begun to outsmart the country’s now-outdated monitoring capabilities.  

The restrictions placed on the internet in Syria have earned the country a top-15 spot in Reporters Without Borders’s list of “Enemies of the Internet.”  Despite that, young people and activists, with commendable ingenuity, have been able to make ample use of the internet. 

Many of Syria’s restrictions are effectively symbolic.  Though it’s illegal to host a pornographic site or even to visit one, one poll of students published on OpenArab.net suggests that pornographic sites actually receive more hits than any others.  There are hundreds of political and cultural sites blocked in Syria, but only three pornographic ones: Playboy.com, Sex.com, and a sometimes-graphic forum called NetArabic.com.  But any internet user who has ever had a Google search go awry is fully aware of just how superficial blocking these three sites really is for putting a stop to the viewing of pornography.  If Syria wanted to crack down on pornography with the same severity it has demonstrated toward what it considers to be politically contrary websites, it would have to block hundreds of thousands of risqué sites at the very least.

In reality, blocking a website does little to keep readers from viewing it.  The vast majority of internet cafes and wireless hotspots in Syria connect to what is jokingly referred to by many as the “Lebanon server.”  The “Lebanon server” is really any proxy server outside of Syria that allows users to surf the internet anonymously.  Many blogs and even a “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents” give readers detailed instructions on how to connect through proxy servers and preserve their anonymity.

"A lot of stuff is illegal here,” said one internet café owner in Damascus, “Skype, webcams, and stuff - but a lot of places get away with this stuff."

"I'm not afraid of being closed down.  It just randomly happens, so you can't predict it … I just had a friend last week who was forced to shut down his café.  The government does this every so often.  They crack down for a while, and then they usually forget."

Many in Syria seem to think of the state’s extensive ban as nothing more than an inconvenience.  After all, it’s not so difficult for the moderately savvy internet user to get around Assad’s firewall.  But, as a statement about the future of Syria and the pressing need for a legal opposition, a ban like this is much more than an inconvenience.  It may be slightly amusing that a bunch of adolescents now have to go the extra mile, hurdling themselves through proxy after proxy, to see some naughty pictures, but it’s no joke that Masoud Hamid, Mohanad Quatish, Yahia Al-Auis, Mohammad Zeib, Habib Salah, or any of the many other Syrians who have posted controversial material on the internet have been arrested or detained without trial – or worse – been tortured.

Ironically, access to technologies like the internet was one of the areas in which hopes were highest for the younger Assad as he assumed the presidency. When asked about restrictions on the internet during an interview with the Washington Post in late April of 2000, a few months before he took office, Assad stated that, "As a point of principle, I would like everybody to be able to see everything. The more you see, the more you improve. . . . Knowledge is limitless."

Apparently, the Syrian president has since revised his opinion on this subject.

  • kurdy

    bashar asaad and his party(bathiy party) they are facist so what you gona get from them? ***deleted***...long live KURD's and KURDISTAN

    August 10, 2007