Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns yesterday’s arrest of Mazen Darwich, the founder of the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression, while he attended a peaceful sit-in outside the interior ministry in Damascus as an observer. Around 30 of the demonstrators were also arrested.
“The Syrian government has been controlling news and information for years, but censorship has been stepped up in response to the emergence of protest movements in the Arab world,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The decision to unblock websites such as Facebook and YouTube was taken above all for the media impact. Darwich’s arrest does not bode well for free expression in Syria, where journalists are now under closer surveillance than ever.”
Yesterday’s sit-in was held to demand the release of prisoners of conscience. The Syrian media reported that interior ministry officials received several relatives of detainees yesterday, one day after several dozen people participated in a demonstration in Hamidiya market in the centre of Damascus.
Officially, the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed down three years ago but it has been operating without authorization. It is the only Syrian NGO specializing in monitoring the media and Internet access. In the past, it played a leading role in condemning decisions by interior minister Mohsen Bilal, such as his ban on the distribution of many newspapers and magazines in Syria.
As previously reported by Reporters Without Borders, a Damascus military court sentenced already imprisoned writer and journalist Ali Al-Abdallah to another three years in prison on 13 March on a charge of “intending to harm Syria’s relations with another state”
The grounds for the new charge were an article by Abdallah about Iran that was posted online on 23 August 2009, while he was in prison. It criticized the Wilayat al-Faqih doctrine, under which Iran’s clerics wield absolute power over political affairs. Held since 17 December 2007 for signing the Damascus Declaration, Abdallah had been serving a 30-month sentence. Under Syrian law, he will have to serve 18 months of the new sentence (http://en.rsf.org/syria-already-imprisoned-journalist-15-03-2011,39796.html).