Reporters Without Borders’ concerns about online free expression in Syria have increased as a result of an informal meeting on 10 May of the committee tasked with drafting a new press law. While the press law would continue to be subject to the criminal code, the proposed changes would extend its penalties to Internet users.
“For more than three years we have been calling for the decriminalization of press offences in Syria’s legislation, which is so vaguely worded that it violates free expression,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Incorporating such an important area as the Internet will just add new restrictions and legalize the repression of President Bashir Al Assad’s opponents. It is no longer just journalists who are affected, but all those who express their views online.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We call for the withdrawal of this proposed reform which, if adopted, would reinforce the marked decline in the Syrian media, and we reiterate our call for the decriminalization of press offences.”
Under the current press law, adopted in 2001, journalists can be jailed if they “attack the state’s prestige or dignity, national unity or army morale (...) the national economy (...) or the security of the currency.” To be able to operate, news media must apply for a licence directly to the prime minister’s office.
The information ministry already took steps to incorporate the Internet into the press law in 2005. Article 19 says the editor of an electronic publication must be Syrian and at least 25 years old, must reside in Syria and cannot work for a foreign government. However, the 10 May draft does not include any definition of what constitutes a website.
Reporters Without Borders therefore wrote to the information minister today urging him to “amend the proposed revision to allow more freedom of expression.” Syria is one of the world’s most closed countries as regards news and information. Five journalists and five bloggers are currently in prison because of the articles they wrote.
Article 2 of the latest draft has these definitions:
electronic newspaper: a digital information media that reports the news and publishes articles, photos, cartoons and audiovisual files about an event and depends on constant updating of news published online
electronic publisher: someone who obtains a licence for an electronic newspaper
electronic publishing: news published online in the form of text, sounds, photos and videos.
Article 10 says “every foreign publication must obtain the Syrian information ministry’s approval in order to be disseminated in the market for the first time and the minister has the power to prevent the dissemination of foreign publications if he finds that they violate Syria’s sovereignty, national security and public decency.” The proposed law does not define the status of websites and this article gives the information minister full powers over online free expression.