The government continued to carefully stifle all sign of dissent in 2007 though the country is traditionally by turns rebuffed by the international community and then invited back in. President Al-Assad was re-elected in May for seven years by an official 97% of the vote and has still not ended the country’s 45-year state of emergency.
The number of media outlets in Syria since President Bashar el-Assad came to power in 2000 has increased and new privately-owned general-interest weeklies and dailies have appeared alongside several entertainment TV stations. But expansion has not brought diversity and the new outlets must still avoid a great number of taboo subjects. Journalists have to tightly censor themselves for fear of being thrown into Adra prison (in suburban Damascus) where most political prisoners, including dissident journalists, are held.
Journalist and human rights activist Michel Kilo, 67, in prison since May 2006, was sentenced on 13 May 2007 (after a sham trial) to three years imprisonment for “weakening national sentiment.” Activists Mahmud Issa and Anwar al-Bunni, arrested the same time as Kilo for urging an end to Syrian interference in neighbouring Lebanon, were respectively jailed for three years (also in May) and five years (in April) on similar charges. Seven members of the opposition pro-democracy National Council for the Damascus Declaration were arrested in December, including freelance journalist Ali Abdallah on 17 December. He was jailed for six months in 2006 for “criticising the emergency laws” and in January 2008 was being held at Adra prison waiting to be told the new charges against him.
Bloggers seemed less restricted in 2007 but filtering of online traffic significantly increased. Three cyber-dissidents jailed since 2006 were freed in 2007, but at the start of 2008, access to about 100 websites was still blocked, including the popular Hotmail, Facebook and YouTube and many human rights websites. The regime uses a filter called Thundercache to spy on Web traffic, eliminate viruses and prevent video pirating. Access is blocked to Arab-language opposition sites and to material about Syria’s Kurdish minority.