On 18 March 2001 President Bashar el-Assad put out a warning against any attempt to criticise the regime. "There are principles in Syria that no one has the right to undermine, such as the interests of the Syrian people, the [ruling] Baath party, national unity, the armed forces and the policies of President Hafez el-Assad. [...] Attacking these foundations is an attack on the national interests of the people and serves the enemies of the fatherland" he said, adding that he would "not allow anyone to denigrate our history or to attack it". Shortly afterwards the young president put his words into action by imposing severe restrictions on political circles in which many personalities are able to criticise the government.
Repression was accentuated in August and September with the arrest of important political figures and leaders in civil society, including members of parliament Maamoun el-Homsi and Riad Seif and former political prisoner Riad el Turk. A new and particularly restrictive press decree promulgated on 22 September laid down the rules for the granting of licences to new newspapers.
The decree has given the prime minister a right of veto if he judges that a new publication "harms the general interest", and provides for heavier sentences for press offences. Journalists who "report false news and falsify documents" are liable to jail sentences of between one and three years and fines of up to one million Syrian pounds (about 24,420 euros). "False news" can "affect Syria’s international relations, damage the state’s prestige, national unity and the morale of the army" and "harm the national economy". "Those who contact a foreign country and receive money from it in exchange for propaganda for that country or for its projects" will be punished by jail sentences ranging from six months to two years. Fines can be as high as 100,000 Syrian pounds (about 2,442 euros).
Likewise, any publication that "calls for amendments to the constitution in an anti-constitutional way, and for revolt against the authorities" will have its licence withdrawn, and the publication of "secret documents of parliament and articles and information in breach of national security, unity of society or concerning the army" are forbidden.
A few rare positive signs were noted during the year. Several publications not controlled by the state appeared, although this did not necessarily mean a real liberalisation of information.
As of July 2001 foreign journalists (non-Syrians and non-Arabs) on a mission to Syria are no longer obliged to report to the information ministry. In the past the intelligence police stamped their entry card which also had to be approved by the information ministry, otherwise they were not allowed to leave Syria afterwards.
The good news of the year is still the release of the last two journalists in Syrian jails. Nizar Nayyouf was released on 6 May on the occasion of Pope John-Paul II’s visit to the country. Reporters sans frontières - Fondation de France 1998 prizewinner Nizar Nayyouf, contributor to the weekly Al Huriyya and the magazine Al Ma’arifa, and member of the CDF (committees for democratic freedoms and human rights in Syria), was arrested in January 1992 and sentenced to ten years of hard labour for writing CDF leaflets denouncing human rights violations during the 1991 elections.
Journalist ’Adel Isma’il, contributor to the underground newsletter El democrati, was released on 18 November after five years behind bars. He was sentenced in 1996 to ten years in jail for "spreading false news" and for militating for the banned Baath Democratic Party. He was released as part of a "presidential pardon" on the occasion of the anniversary of Hafez el-Assad’s take-over on 16 November 1970.
Pressure and obstruction
The new satirical independent newspaper Al Doumari was forced to censor its 19 June 2001 issue. It contained two articles, one headed "Dr. Miro is depressed, he’s lost his enthusiasm" and the other "Rumours on a change of government ties the ministers’ hands". For the first time the prime minister, Mustapha Miro, was targeted, whereas other articles criticised the government and institutions in general. On 16 June police stopped the printing of the newspaper, on orders of the prime minister and the information minister.
The authorities "warned me that the newspaper would be permanently banned if we published the two pages" containing these articles, said Ali Farzat, owner, editor-in-chief and cartoonist of the weekly. Al Doumari was the first newspaper of its kind to appear since the Baath Party came to power in 1963.
On the occasion of the Syrian president’s press conference on 27 June at Hotel Marigny in Paris, during his state visit to France, the Syrian embassy’s press service refused about ten media entry into the hall. Representatives of the British Reuters, the Kuwaiti agency KUNA, the radio station Voice of America, the French weekly Courrier International, the Libyan news agency JANA, the Iraqi news agency and several Israeli media including the daily Maariv were unable to attend even though they all had the required accreditation. A representative of the Syrian embassy explained to a journalist that "throughout the press conference, the Hotel Marigny is under Syrian authority".
In August and September the authorities tried repeatedly to intimidate several foreign press correspondents working in Damascus, at the time of the arrests of leading political and civil personalities, especially Maamoun el-Homsi. Some of these journalists were told not to report these events.
On 3 September Nizar Nayyouf, then in France, was summoned by a Syrian magistrate. The journalist was accused of "trying to change the constitution illegally" and of "publishing false information abroad". During a press conference on 16 July at the Reporters Without Borders head office, he had announced his intention, on his return to Syria, to institute legal proceedings against senior government officials guilty of crimes in the country. Also accused of "incitement to denominationalism", he is liable to five years’ imprisonment, according to his lawyer Anouar Bounni. Since he failed to report to the magistrate, a warrant of arrest was issued for him on 1 January 2002.
The journalist is also being sued in Paris for libel by former vice-president Rifaat el Assad, the banished brother for former president Hafez el-Assad, for saying that he had ordered soldiers to execute political prisoners in 1980 in Palmyre prison in Syria. This statement was made to Al Jazira, the Qatari television channel that broadcasts throughout the Arab world.
Since Nizar Nayyouf’s release the Syrian intelligence services have been trying in many ways to intimidate his family. In October two of his brothers, Mamdouh and Amjad Nayyouf, who worked as teachers in public institutions, were dismissed after being subjected to pressure aimed at forcing them to deny Nizar Nayyouf - something they refused to do. Another one of his brothers, Hayane Nayyouf, a student at Tichrine university in Lattakia, was threatened by university officials who said that he would never obtain his degree if he did not officially declare that all Nizar Nayyouf’s statements were lies.
President Bashar el-Assad has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders.