Censorship of Websites Announced by Syrian Ministry of Tel.

This is a frightening measure introduced by the Minister of Telecommunications. Websites have been the main avenue of intellectual freedom and expression in Syria. Many, if not most, of the commentators on Syria Comment use pseudonyms in order to protect themselves from the adverse effects that would surely ensue if they were to write under their real names.

It is hard to believe that Syria would want to close down all websites with comment sections. Already all Blogspot blogs have been blocked in Syria. They can still be read through Bloglines or any other RSS feed, but the comment sections are not so easily accessed.

Syria: Ministry Introduce Website Censorship Measure
2007-08-07 05:56 (New York, BBC Media) (Thanks Ehsani) 
Text of report by Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir website on 3 August  

Those working in the field of internet publishing were fighting the "ghosts" of censorship – given the lack of any Syrian law that organizes their work – when they received a blow from where they did not expect.

For more than a year, the Information Ministry has not spared any effort to reassure them, and it is promising them a new media law, "which will be issued soon," and will include clear provisions on the electronic media. The justification for the delay is that the ministry does not want any haste that could produce a flawed law.

However, and amid this delay, "a new player" came out: The Ministry of Telecommunications and Technology. The latter issued a decision, which drove the owners of the Syrian websites crazy, and they came out to oppose and defy [the decision]. In its circular, the Telecommunications Ministry says: "We ask the owners of the Syrian websites to exercise accuracy and objectivity (…) [ellipsis as published] and to post the name of the writer of an article and the one who comments on it in a clear and detailed manner. The failure to do so would result in warning the website owner and rendering his website temporarily inaccessible. In case the violation is repeated, the website will become permanently inaccessible." 

The ministry justifies its circular by saying that some articles and commentaries, without being coupled with evidence and attributed to certain persons, include "lies and expressions that run counter to the ethics of speech and that annoy others, which make them publicly committed crimes of defamation and violation of public morals." The ministry said that that "encroaches upon the credibility of the websites that post such articles on the one hand and creates confusion in the society on the other".

For the Syrians, the demand that the name be revealed means a threat, which is a purely security tradition. Those working in the field of internet publishing are now fed- up. Colleague Khalid Sumaysim, chief editor of the Syria Life website, says that the decision is "an attempt to restrict the freedoms of the journalists and ordinary people". He noted that requesting the posting of the personal profiles of website writers or commentators "make them refrain from expressing their opinions about any issue, and their opinions will therefore be kept absent, and they will desert the Syrian websites". He expressed surprise that the Telecommunications Ministry designated itself as a censor although the Information Ministry did not interfere in this context.

To prove his viewpoint, Sumaysim explained that when he asked those who write in the website he runs to reveal their true names, "they completely refused that". This is despite the fact that, as he said, "the decision is useless because anyone can post a comment using a pseudonym and send a fake email address". 

The Kulluna Shuraka [We Are All Partners] electronic newsletter was the first Syrian website, which has lately been blocked. The supervisors of the newsletter are preparing to launch a website carrying the same name. Colleague George Kadar, the website's managing editor, believes that the internet publishing issue "cannot beaddressed by a decision, and the minister himself said that in all world countries publication is organized by laws, not a decision!" He said that the decision was issued because "some officials were harmed by the comments made by employees in their institutions or ministries". 

It is worth noting that the Ministry of Culture faced a concentrated attack by some website commentators following the posting of some articles and reports on the demolition of some areas in Damascus, which were the subject of a long debate as to whether they are of a historical value or not. The Telecommunications Ministry also received a considerable share of the anger of commentators as a result of the problems from which the Syrian internet network is suffering and the delay in fulfilling the promises for developing it.

Kadar says he is not convinced that the decision of the Telecommunications Ministry can control the field of internet publishing. He asks: "Do they want to convince us that they can monitor all the Syrian websites and that they will take the rights of all citizens from among the hundreds of published items and commentaries? This is unless they want to make the website owners spy on their readers, something which does not befit the press work and the professionalcode of honour." 

Some of those working in the internet publishing field are surprised that the Telecommunications Ministry could not stand waiting for the issuance of the new media law and rushed to make a decision, which they considered "crucial" in a field that represented "a very big and actual democratic opportunity for the Syrians". 

For his part, Telecommunications Minister Amr Salim told Al- Safir that the decision was made by the cabinet and that "it asked the Telecommunications Ministry to follow it up." He noted that the cabinet "received many complaints (related to commentaries and other things) and there are laws that protect persons against defamation. The cabinet, therefore, decided to place the internet publishing within the framework of those laws, and it does not have to wait until a new media law is issued."

Salim said that the website owners were confused by the content of the decision. He explained that "the freedom of commentary and speech will remain protected, but what is meant by the decision are those commentaries that include defamation, which conflict with the civil law; and those who are harmed have the right to know who caused the harm". 

The telecommunications minister stressed that the cabinet law is binding. The decision involves all that is posted on the websites, including commentaries and articles, and does not differentiate between them.

Colleague Ali Jamalu, who works in the Sham Press website, got so angry that, in replying to the decision, he said: "Your Excellency Minister Amr Salim, with all due respect to you, we disagree with your wish, and we will not comply with your circular. If you wish to close our website down, you are welcome to do so."

Most of those in charge of Syrian internet sites frankly said that they will not comply with the decision, either out of defiance or inability [as published]. It remains to be seen what consequences the binding nature of the decision will have and whether the Information Ministry has heard of what is happening in its territory. 

(c) 2007 BBC Monitoring Media. Aug/07/2007 09:56 GMT

 Amal Saad-Ghorayeb's latest piece on US policy toward Lebanon and Palestine. An interesting comparison.

Comments (19)


1. youngsyria said:

they are fighting a losing battle…

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August 8th, 2007, 5:54 am

 

2. fadi said:

the stem escaping from these comments -if bolcked- may lead to a huge explosion….sure you understand….

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August 8th, 2007, 8:18 am

 

3. The Arabist » Report: Syria to ban comments on websites, increase web censorship said:

[…] See SyriaComment. It’s becoming clearly obvious in every country whose news I follow that blogs and other websites are playing a crucial role as forum for debates and news-reporting where traditional publications face censorship. With the web, however, while governments can make things more difficult for users there are always ways to get around barriers. […]

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August 8th, 2007, 11:12 am

 

4. Imad Naassan said:

I think it is fair to ask for the real name when some one publishes an ariticle or comments on an article when they name a real person accusing him of bad things. No one should be able to destroy the reputation of some one else except if they take responsibility for their action. I have read many times cheap accusations against people holding positions in Syria without substantiating their arguments, and protecting themselves by saying anything under false names.

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August 8th, 2007, 3:09 pm

 

5. Akbar Palace said:

Something George Bush would never consider, yet we excuse the Baathists and demonize Bush on a daily basis.

Why?

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August 8th, 2007, 3:37 pm

 

6. t_desco said:

Abu Hureira linked to two Hariri anniversary attacks

This article by Al-Hayat confirms that Shehab al-Qaddour/Abu Hureira was a member of the Dinniyeh group and links him (together with Shaker al-Abssi) to a planned grenade attack on the Hariri commemoration rally in February 2006. This is what Naharnet reported at the time:

“According to Al Mustaqbal newspaper, the State Security Department has announced the arrest of eight people who were planning to launch rockets at the crowds at the rally.

… But a judicial source told the Beirut-based daily that two Syrian nationals and a Palestinian confessed that they were supposed to meet an unidentified person who would give them instructions on how to disrupt the arrival of convoys flocking to Martyrs’ Square.”
(“Fatfat: 12 People Arrested At Rally Commemorating Hariri”, Naharnet, 15 Feb 06; Fatfat later issued a non-denial denial).

Both al-Qaddour and al-Abssi have also been charged with involvement in the Ain Alaq bus bombings. Brammertz, in his latest report, points to a possible connection between the date of the attack and the Hariri assassination:

“Evidence and statements collected by the Commission and by the Lebanese authorities indicate that the choice of the date, on the eve of the second anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, may however be connected with the motives for the attack.”
(Brammertz VI, §66)

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August 8th, 2007, 5:25 pm

 

7. Ford Prefect said:

Ministry of Information? The first order of business for the Syrian Cabinet should have been to shut down the Ministry of Information instead of closing “non-compliant” websites. If that wasn’t possible, they should have passed a legislation to call it the Ministry of Disinformation, Deceit, and Propaganda (MDDP). Around the world, MDDPs are usually private enterprises owned by Rupert Murdock and are the reserved for the mentally challenged masses.

Not only it is a shameful and a regrettable step, but it is also comical in its intent. A government that thinks it can control internet information exchange is massively ill-informed and delusional.

The Ministry should know that Syrians have grown to outsmart their government. What the government is doing to control the press and the freedom of information is no longer relevant. They are just wasting their time.

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August 8th, 2007, 9:00 pm

 

8. Ford Prefect said:

T_Desco,

Most interesting is Brammertz item §66. It would be even more interesting if Brammertz can finally disclose the owners of the Dinniyeh assets and their mobilization.

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August 8th, 2007, 9:08 pm

 

9. t_desco said:

Ford Prefect,

sorry, I don’t understand. What do you mean by “the Dinniyeh assets and their mobilization”?

More on Bush’s Executive Order on Lebanon:

Is the US indeed going after General Aoun, and, above all, in the name of”Lebanese sovereignty”…?

US makes list of Lebanese engaged in ‘anti-democratic actions’
FPM slams charge of undermining sovereignty as ‘ridiculous’

By Iman Azzi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 09, 2007

BEIRUT: The US is preparing a list of the names of wealthy Lebanese businessmen known to have various political and religious backgrounds, and identified with partaking in suspicious activity, the Central News Agency (CNA) reported Wednesday. The CNA added that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had opened an inquiry into a relative of a prominent Christian Lebanese leader who recently purchased land in North Carolina worth more than $10 million. The FBI charged that the salary of the man being investigated could not support such expensive real estate and is aiming to find the source of the funds.

In comments to Arab journalists on Monday, Under-Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch discussed last week’s executive order signed by President George W. Bush that aims to block property of persons undermining the sovereignty of Lebanon or its democratic process and institutions, according to a White House statement.

The US would examine “any information there is about persons who may be engaged in anti-democratic actions,” he said.

“It is not a matter of opposition to one person in government, or to the government, it is not personal in that sense. And there are a variety of people who I think should receive scrutiny right away because their loyalty does not lie either to the Constitution or to the country,” added Welch without naming specific parties or people.

Welch was then asked how the executive order would affect the main members of Lebanon’s opposition, namely the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Hizbullah if they refused to partake in a parliamentary election to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud. Welch’s answer concentrated on the laws already in place targeting Hizbullah and pointedly avoided mentioning if or how this would be used against the FPM.

The daily An-Nahar on Tuesday, citing prominent sources, said “any citizen is subject” to the executive order issued by US President George Bush which aims at blocking property of persons undermining Lebanon’s sovereignty or its democratic process and institutions.

An-Nahar said the move reflects the US administration’s “never-ending concern” over the possibility of Aoun’s participation in any activity that could lead to the emergence of dual governments or hinder upcoming presidential elections if he figured he was not going to win.

A member of the FPM told The Daily Star that any attempt to charge the FPM of undermining Lebanese sovereignty was “ridiculous.”

“The FPM as a member of the opposition is participating in a very democratic manner. I don’t see how this would have any impact on the FPM or its members,” the official said, refusing to comment further until an official statement was released by the US.
The Daily Star

(my emphasis)

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August 8th, 2007, 9:40 pm

 

10. Ford Prefect said:

T_Desco,
Sorry about the confusion. You mentioned that Abu Hureira (lousy choice of a nickname to start with) is a member of the Dinniyeh group.

This question is who does the Dinniyeh group report to (agents of)? I am waiting on Brammertz to uncover those links – hopefully.

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August 8th, 2007, 9:53 pm

 

11. Nur al-Cubicle said:

What stupidity! An anti-telecommunications telecommunication ministry.

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August 9th, 2007, 1:57 am

 

12. Joshua said:

Dear Imad Naassan,
You write above that:

“I think it is fair to ask for the real name when some one publishes an article or comments on an article when they name a real person accusing him of bad things. No one should be able to destroy the reputation of some one else except if they take responsibility for their action. I have read many times cheap accusations against people holding positions in Syria without substantiating their arguments, and protecting themselves by saying anything under false names.”

I understand the need to protect peoples’ reputations. One of the real down-sides of the web is that it allows people to write for public consumption what has only been rumored or passed along by word of mouth in the past. You write that “No one should be able to destroy the reputation of some one else except if they take responsibility for their action.”

The problem with trying to control the web is that the only way to stop anonymous comments is to shut down all access in Syria to sites with comment sections, such as this one, where most people comment with false names. Already, all sites that publish on Blogspot have been blocked in Syria. The vast majority of Syrian sites were published on Blogspot. There were several hundred. Most were very nice sites. All those people are angry now. Most of the owners never wrote anything against the government or any official. How many of those young people – many of whom are the brightest and best of the young generation – will decide to leave Syria for some other country where they can write what they want?

Using too heavy a hand on censorship, I fear, will hurt Syrian society more than it will protect it. There has to be a better way to create a balance, where some basic freedoms of speech are preserved and yet people can be held accountable, without fearing arbitrary censure.

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August 9th, 2007, 8:09 am

 

13. t_desco said:

Ford Prefect,

the leader of the Dinniyeh group was Bassam al-Kanj (Abu Aisha), Bernard Rougier calls him a “professional jihadist” (“Everyday Jihad”, p.231). He fought in Afghanistan, met Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Qatada. In the late 90s, he was allegedly part of a sleeper cell in Boston that was in contact with Abu Zubayda and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad. (One member of that alleged cell, Muhammad Kamal al-Zahabi (“Elzahabi” in some articles”) is currently on trial in Minneapolis).

Both the Dinniyeh group and Fatah al-Islam had reportedly very similar long-term plans to establish an Islamic state in northern Lebanon, so one can speculate if both were attempts by al-Qa’ida to gain a foothold in Lebanon.

Regarding the financing, one has to suspect that most of the funds of both groups came from the usual “wealthy businessmen” from Gulf states. The Wall Street Journal had a very interesting article on this topic some days ago (“U.S. Tracks Saudi Bank Favored by Extremists”, WSJ, July 26, 2007).

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August 9th, 2007, 9:14 am

 

14. Imad Naassan said:

Dear Dr. Joshua Landis:

Thank you for replying to my post. I understand your point, but
I agree with it to the point where one is giving criticism under a general term, not in the specific where the criticism (many times motivated by the desire to revenge) is directed toward a specific person with a name and position or address. If one names a person they are criticising, then, I think that they should be held accountable. In the US and Canada, I know that people were able to sue posters for their attempt to destroy reputations of others. In fact, there is no total freedom in the US or Canada for some one to speak so freely against some one else. The ISP is obligated under court order to give information about such infractions of freedom.

Thank you

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August 9th, 2007, 1:56 pm

 

15. Ford Prefect said:

T_Desco,
Sorry for the late response and thanks for the additional information. Al Watan newspaper yesterday reported quoting Lebanese security forces that the number of Saudi citizens (jihadist) killed in clashes at the Nahr Barid in Northern Lebanon is now 18.

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August 10th, 2007, 7:02 pm

 

16. Aleppo: Hospitality, Fast Food, and Censorship « Between Chapel Hill and Timbuktu said:

[…] Censorship: It seems the US government has decided that Mozilla’s Firefox is an inappropriate technology transfer to Syria (and Cuba and a few others), so we use Internet Explorer here, which apparently involves no technology transfer? It seems the Syrian government is dubious about the blogspot.com domain, so I can’t read Katie’s blog. […]

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August 12th, 2007, 11:51 am

 

17. Michael M. said:

Well, things have been changed a bit, but still on the wrong way .

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October 5th, 2008, 2:45 am

 

18. farm said:

Thank you. Something George Bush would never consider, yet we excuse the Baathists and demonize Bush on a daily basis.

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February 12th, 2010, 4:07 am

 

19. norman said:

Hey Farm ,

Did somebody wake you up , this article from 2007 ,

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February 12th, 2010, 4:42 am

 

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