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Syria - World Report 2009

159 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index

Area: 185,180 sq. km. Population: 17,585,540 Language: Arabic Head of state: Bashar al Assad since July 2000

Sole presidential candidate, Bashar al-Assad was re-elected head of state in 2007 with more than 97% of the vote. A state of emergency declared in 1963 remains in force. Long-awaited democratic reforms, including a review of the press law, have remained a dead letter.

Media expansion in the past few years has not led to pluralism. And the return of Syria to the international scene in 2008 has not altered the status quo since the Baath Party has continued to keep a stranglehold on the media. Even though a few publications not controlled by the state have appeared in recent years, this has not given rise to any liberalisation of news and information. All media are subject to a highly restrictive press decree, passed in 2001, which aims to prevent any attempt to challenge certain unassailable principles, such as the interests of the Syrian people, the Baath Party (in power since 1963), national unity, the armed forces and the president’s policy. Journalists who do question official policy quickly find themselves in prison. This is what happened to Syrian journalist Michel Kilo who was arrested on 14 May 2006 for signing a statement by Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals advocating a reform in relations between the two neighbours. Convicted of “weakening national sentiment”, he remains an emblematic figure of Syria’s pro-democracy struggle. He was the recipient of the Speaker Abbott Award in October 2008. Three other Syrian journalists are also in prison.

Syria is one of the world’s most repressive countries towards Internet users. The authorities have stepped up Internet filtering, making many websites inaccessible, including Arabic-language opposition sites and those linked to the country’s Kurdish minority. In 2007, the telecommunications ministry ruled that owners of websites had to not only keep all the personal details of those posting articles and comments, but also to make public the names of contributors to the site, along with commentators, under threat of closure of the site in question. Over the past 18 months, many bloggers have been harassed for contributing to online publications that “damage national prestige” under Article 287 of the Syrian criminal code, or were found guilty of “publishing false news” and “weakening national sentiment” (Articles 285 and 286 of the code). To date, five Syrian cyber-dissidents remain in prison.

Finally, foreign press correspondents in Syria, who are also under surveillance, have great difficulty in obtaining accreditation. A Reporters Without Borders’ delegation was in September 2008 denied entry to Syria. “They will never get visas”, the Syrian information minister said at the time.

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