Trials were held between May and August of 10 leading civil society figures - doctors, lawyers, members of parliament and human rights activists - arrested in mid-2001 for organising political discussion groups around the country at which the government was criticised and calls for democracy made. They were given jail sentences of between two and 10 years.
Among them was the best-known opponent of the regime, Riad Turk, a former lawyer and secretary-general of banned Communist Party (Political Office), who spent 17 years in prison until 1998 under the rule of President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father. At a "discussion meeting" in a private house in Damascus on 6 August 2001, he had called for Syria to "make a transition from despotism to democracy."
After criticising President Bashar al-Assad on the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera in mid-August, he was arrested on 1 September, and sentenced on 26 June 2002 by the state security court to two and a half years in prison. Turk, in his early 70s, was freed on 16 November for "humanitarian reasons" and his release was welcomed by Western governments.
Journalists and foreign diplomats were not allowed to attend the trial hearings of Turk, who is sometimes called "Syria’s Nelson Mandela." In August, the European Union said only limited human rights progress had been made by Syria since 2000 and called on the government to free all political prisoners and urgently make the reforms it originally promised.
In January, the government announced a more liberal broadcasting policy, with privately-owned radio stations allowed to operate at an unspecified future date alongside the state-controlled Radio Damascus. But only music or commercial stations would be allowed.
A new non-government weekly, Abiad wa Asswad ("Black and White") appeared in July - the third privately-owned publication, after the business weekly Al-Iqtissadiya and the satirical weekly Addomari, to benefit from a September 2001 law allowing non-government newspapers. It was owned by Bilal Turkmani, son of the army commander, Gen. Hassan Turkmani, and described itself as a "political, economic and cultural weekly that aims to become the paper of the Arab family." It had a print-run of 10,000 copies.
In November, Prime Minister Mohammad Mustapha Miro authorised the appearance of four privately-owned non-political publications - a tourist and cultural monthly, Dimashkiate, a sports weekly, Malaeb, and two weeklies containing small ads. After 30 years of dictatorship, the country’s media is very monotonous, tame and boring
A journalist imprisoned
Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus bureau chief of the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, was arrested on 23 December 2002. The government news agency SANA said on 27 December that he would soon be tried for "putting out inaccurate news," which is punishable by between one and three years in prison. The paper’s management in London said that "in fact, he was arrested for putting out the truth and being too professional in his work." He had reported in a 20 December article on preparations by the Syrian authorities and the United Nations in the northeastern part of the country to receive a million Iraqi refugees if there was a war against Iraq. The paper printed a denial on 24 December by a spokesman for the prime minister, denying that Syria or the Red Crescent were setting up hospitals and camps along the border with Iraq.
Pressure and obstruction
The satirical weekly Addomari suspended operation on 21 January 2002 because of new distribution arrangements the government was trying to impose on it. The weekly’s owner, Ali Farzat, also a well-known cartoonist, feared that the various charges by the state press distribution body would bankrupt the paper. He pointed out to the information ministry that the law did not oblige privately-owned publications to use the state distributors. Addomari, which contained daring remarks and inferences, reappeared in February.
At the end of April, the government refused to renew the accreditation of the Agence France-Presse bureau chief in Damascus, Maher Chmaytelli, accusing him of violating the rules of accreditation for foreign correspondents in Syria and "basic journalistic principles." He had earlier been summoned in January and accused of having "ill will" and putting out "negative reports" about the internal political situation. Another foreign correspondent in Damascus (who wished to remain anonymous) said the authorities were "conducting a witch-hunt and getting rid of those who dared to open their mouth."
AFP’s management in Paris said after Chmaytelli left the country that its bureau would operate without a chief. It said he had "always worked in a professional manner and respected Syrian laws concerning the press." A visit to Damascus in December 2000 by the head of AFP, Bertrand Eveno, to install Chmaytelli as bureau chief had been seen as an indication of Syria’s willingness to open up in media matters.
Ali Abdel Karim, head of the official news agency SANA, was sacked on 22 April and replaced by Ghazi Dib, its former editor in chief. Karim had been appointed when President Assad took over in July 2000 and had privately criticised the imprisonment of regime opponents such as Riad Turk. In March, he had tried to block the measures taken against AFP by interceding with the information ministry.
The trials of 10 government opponents arrested in mid-2001 began in May, mostly before the state security court, a special military court whose verdicts cannot be appealed. Journalists, foreign diplomats and the prisoners’ families were barred on 9 May from the trial of economist Aref Dalila and businessman Habib Saleh, who were accused of "trying to change the national constitution by illegal means, incitement to religious dissent and sedition, spreading inaccurate news and trying to harm the image of the state."
Only a reporter from the official SANA news agency was allowed to attend the start of the trial on 14 May of Habib Issa and Walid Bunni. Defence lawyers refused to allow the judge to start cross-examination and demanded that the trial be open to the public. "The things they are accused of saying are simply free expression - just words, statements, press articles and remarks in political discussion groups," lawyer Abdel Azim told reporters. Journalists were barred from the second hearing on 19 May in the trial of Riad Turk, though they had been allowed to attend the first hearing on 28 April.
Legal action was started in August against four people, including lawyer Haissam Maleh, 72, who had defended the 10 regime opponents arrested in mid-2001 and who was head of the Syrian Human Rights Association (ADHS). Maleh, Faruk Al-Homsi, a businessman (and brother of member of parliament Maamun Al-Homsi who had been jailed for five years), and Mohammed Kheir Beik, vice-president of the ADHS, were accused of "bringing into the country and distributing an illegal magazine," the ADHS’s magazine Tayyarat ("Currents"). Summonses were issued for the three, who were either abroad or hiding inside Syria.
The fourth defendant was Ghassud Al-Malla, the driver of the van that brought copies of the magazine into the country from neighbouring Lebanon. He was thought to have been jailed in Syria nearly four months earlier. The ADHS, founded in July 2001 by a group of intellectuals and not officially authorised in Syria, distributed the first issue of Tayyarat in July 2002. A copy was sent to President Assad and the ADHS was applying for its publication in Syria to be authorised.
The head of the state broadcasting company, Fayez Sayegh, was sacked on 26 December and replaced by former deputy culture minister Riad Ismat. This was presented by the authorities as a move towards media modernisation, but other sources said it was punishment for putting out a TV programme in which the US ambassador criticised the regime.
Journalist Nizar Nayyuf was sued in France for libel by the disgraced brother of the late president, former vice-president Rifaat el-Assad, for accusing him on the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera of ordering the execution of political prisoners in Palmyra prison in 1980. His remarks could be read on the Internet in France. The verdict was due on 30 January 2003.
Nayyuf had been freed from prison on 6 May 2001 when the Pope visited Syria. He was winner of the 1998 Reporters Without Borders / Fondation de France Prize and had been arrested in January 1992 and sentenced to 10 years at hard labour for writing leaflets attacking human rights violations during elections in 1991.