The US government stepped up its pressure on the regime after the Iraq war but promises of change have still not been fulfilled. There is no independent media and the Internet is censored.
Before the Iraq war, Syria began to stress its moderation and openness to dialogue with Washington. As the only Arab country on the UN Security Council, it even voted for the council’s Resolution 1441 demanding that Iraq destroy the "weapons of mass destruction" it supposedly possessed. Syria’s former UN ambassador, Haitham al-Kilani, suggested at the time that the country feared war against Iraq and said some government officials feared Syria would be the next target.
In late 2003, the difficult relationship between Washington and Damascus turned into a crisis when the US Congress approved economic and political sanctions against Syria for allegedly supporting "terrorism." The "Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act" aimed to force Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon.
Progress that preserves the old order is the slogan of the Baath Party, which seized power in 1963. The youthful president, Bashar al-Assad, is at a loss how to resolve this contradiction, of developing a market economy and granting civil liberties, while protecting the pillars and economic interests of the regime founded by his father.
A group of 287 intellectuals, pointing to the strategic changes in the region, urged the president in May to lift the state of emergency, allow freedom of expression and hold free elections. Assad did not arrest those who signed the petition - as was done in a crackdown in mid-2001 - but replied to them in an interview with the satellite TV station Al-Arabiya, saying his priority was to open up the economy rather than making political reforms.
Parliamentary elections in March were predictably won by a Baathist-led alliance of seven parties and a new government in September saw the information ministry go to Baathist Ahmed al-Hassan. When US forces overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on 9 April, Syria’s state-controlled TV ignored the news from its neighbour and rival and instead broadcast a programme about Arabic poetry.
But many homes and cafés have satellite TV reception and were able to see the toppling of President Hussein’s statue in Baghdad live on Arab stations. Another propaganda example came on 6 October, the day after an Israeli air attack a dozen kilometres from Damascus, when Syrian newspapers instead celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1973 war between Israel and Syria amid a mass of photos of the late President Hafez al-Assad.
Privately-owned radio and TV stations are unofficially banned. Foreign journalists allowed into the country are kept under close observation and news and opposition Internet websites are censored.
New information about a lawsuit in France against a Syrian journalist
A Paris court on 30 January 2003 dismissed a libel suit by former Syrian Vice-President Rifaat al-Assad against Syrian journalist Nizar Nayyuf, who had accused him of murdering people in Palmyra prison on 27 June 1980. Many witnesses told the court this was true. Nayyuf had been freed in Syria on 6 May 2001 after nine years in prison.
A journalist released
Ibrahim Hamidi, bureau chief in Syria of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, was freed on 1,000 Syrian pounds (20 euros) bail on 25 May 2003 after five months in prison. He was released just before a meeting of the Euromed Partnership, that Syria belongs to, but remained accused of publishing "false news" and risked between one and three years in jail. He had been arrested on 23 December 2002 after reporting three days earlier that preparations were being made in the northeast of the country to receive up to a million refugees if Iraq was invaded. The authorities denied this and arrested Hamidi, who was one of the few journalists who had managed to avoid official sanctions. Western governments condemned his arrest.
Harassment and obstruction
A team from the Lebanese Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar that wanted to film a press conference by US secretary of state Colin Powell in Damascus on 3 May 2003 was turned away by US security agents. The US considers Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.
Lawyer Haissam Maleh, president of the Syrian Human Rights Association, received a presidential amnesty on 2 July. He had been prosecuted by a military court since 4 September 2002 for putting out "false news" and for distributing in Syria copies of Tayyarat, the Association’s paper published in Lebanon.
The then prime minister, Mustafa Miro, cancelled the publishing licence on 31 July of the satirical weekly Addomari, and the information ministry said it had contravened a number of laws and regulations by not appearing for more than three months. The magazine had not come out since April because of official harassment. Editor Ali Farzat had had trouble with distribution and advertising, along with censorship and official warnings.
The information ministry had demanded to see its contents beforehand, but the paper refused and instead stopped appearing. Farzat knew he risked a ban if the paper did not come out within the three-month deadline, so he published an issue a few days beforehand, on 28 July, headlined "Belief in the possibility of reform."
The paper’s lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, said the authorities banned its distribution because it contained articles about the country’s censored media along with messages to President Assad and new information minister Adnan Omran. Several of its staff were also summoned by state security officials. Bunni criticised the censoring of the paper and said he would take legal action to get back the publishing licence.
Addomari became Syria’s only independent satirical newspaper after a September 2001 law allowed non state-controlled newspapers for the first time since 1963.