Demonstrating how government control over the Internet gateway enables increased censorship, a new law in Syria could seriously curtail online media use in the Mideast nation. The law allows police access to editorial offices in order to arrest journalists and seize their computers. Arrested journalists will then be tried in criminal courts.
Syria maintains a very tight grip over its Internet traffic and shows little tolerance for “unauthorized” Internet use. According to Reporters Without Borders, Syria is “an Internet rights violator,” an “enemy of the Web,” and “the biggest prison for cyber dissidents in the Middle East due to its number of arrests and the frequency of mistreatment of online activists.”
The organization also stated the country “is one of the world’s most repressive” after China and Vietnam, adding Syria “censors opposition and independent news Web sites, barring access to those that deal with Syrian policy, monitoring online activity to silence dissident voices, and jailing Internet users and bloggers.”
Censors particularly target social networks and blog platforms in an effort to prevent dissidents from getting organized and recruiting new members using the new media, says Reporters without Borders. The government blocks Blogspot and Maktoob, and YouTube has been blocked since August 2007 after videos were circulated denouncing the crackdown on the Kurd minority. Wikipedia’s Arabic version was blocked from May 2008 to February 2009, and Amazon and Skype are also inaccessible.
‘Easier Surveillance and Control’
“The list of [Syrian] banned sites changes and updates frequently,” said Nir Boms, a columnist for the daily YNET, a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), a member of the Board of the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, and a cofounder of CyberDisssidents.org.
“Since the government controls the main Internet gateway, surveillance and control becomes easier,” said Boms. “Aside from the technical capabilities, the Syrian authorities have several legislative tools at their disposal as well. These legal mechanisms are frequently used.”
Syria’s previous Internet laws banned citizens from provoking “sectarian conflict,” “undermining national morale,” and “insulting the national integrity.” Those who raise the attention of the security forces may be summoned to the police station and intimidated, said Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“They will ask you: Don’t you know we are at war with Israel and you are undermining morale with these things you say online?” said Landis. “They make it clear that you shouldn’t engage in these sorts of activities anymore and that’s the end of it. If they have to bring you in two or even three times, then they will throw you in jail. Syria has arrested five or six bloggers over the last nine years.”
‘Flagged Words, Forbidden Sites’
Another obstacle to Internet access is the cost. Syria is a very poor country, and Syrians get subsidies for essentials such as gas, bread, rice, and cooking oil, but these are being dismantled as the country tries to emerge from a command-and-control economy, Landis said.
There are Internet cafes everywhere, but the cost of $1 per hour is prohibitive for many Syrians.
“In America, we just go online and surf till we get tired or bored. You can’t really do that in Syria because of the expense for someone on a fixed income,” said Landis. “There are only two Internet providers in Syria, so the government controls the flow and trawls through everything, looking for flagged words or forbidden sites.
“Certain sites—like Facebook and YouTube—are banned, but everyone goes to them because they are using a proxy server to go around the government’s firewall. In fact, Syria’s First Lady has a Facebook page and is all over YouTube. She has press agents and handlers posting positive videos of her all day long on YouTube,” he added.
Although the laws are strict, everyone skirts them or breaks them because they know what they can get away with. It is this way in all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, said Landis.
writes from Dallas, Texas.