President Bashar Al-Assad yesterday approved changes to Syria’s media legislation that are part of a series of planned reforms intended to end an ongoing wave of anti-government protests.
The new law tries to give the impression that the media are being given more freedom. It opposes “any monopoly in the media sector,” scraps prison sentences for press offences and, in article 2, proclaims “freedom of expression” as a fundamental principle. It also declares an intention to facilitate access to information and prevent officials from denying access to certain kinds of data.
Article 12 nonetheless calls for “responsible freedom of expression” and bans any reporting that incites violence or sectarian divisions, or threatens national unity. It also bans any report about the armed forces, including the army. It provides no definition of these terms, leaving them vague and imprecise and thereby allowing a great deal of scope for arbitrary interpretation.
Regardless of their nature, how much credibility should be accorded to the new law’s provisions? None.
The law calls for “respect for the fundamental freedoms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in international conventions” but a harsh crackdown has been going on for the past six months, many journalists and free speech defenders have been jailed, and the number of citizens being killed grows by the day.
Article 11’s statement that “any attack on a journalist will be treated as an attack on a Syrian government official” is ridiculous and schizophrenic, and borders on the absurd.
The new law was announced the same day that the authorities prevented three leading opposition figures, Michel Kilo, Fayez Sara and Louay Hossein, from crossing the border into neighbouring Lebanon to attend a seminar organized by Al-Hurra TV. Officials told them it would be dangerous for them to continue their journey.
In other words, the authorities are now claiming to be protecting the same journalists abroad that they have been jailing at home for years. As Hossein said in a comment on Facebook: “It would been preferable if they guaranteed our safety and the safety of others such as Ali Ferzat inside Syria, if they found a way to protect all Syrian citizens, both civilians and soldiers, who are killed every day within our borders, and not abroad. I honestly do not feel safe.”
It should be noted that the authorities recently lifted the international travel bans that the security services had imposed on thousands of people.
Ali Ferzat, the cartoonist who was abducted and tortured on 25 August, was transferred the next day to a private clinic to be operated on. He said he had received threatening phone calls warning him to stop criticizing the government. A demonstration in support of Ferzat was organized outside his home.
Reporters Without Borders meanwhile regrets that the Saudi media group MBC has dropped the Arabic-language version of the US game show “You Deserve It” because of the overtly pro-Assad views of its star presenter, Georges Kordahi.