Saturday, June 19, 2010

Freedom of Speech: Syria's war on journalists

Source: International Freedom of Expression eXchange

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is shocked to learn that the Syrian authorities did not free journalist Ali Al-Abdallah when he completed a 30-month jail sentence on 16 June 2010, and are now holding him on new charges of "disseminating false information with the aim of harming the state" because of an article posted online at the end of 2009 in which he criticised the Islamic Republic of Iran's religious system and Syria's relations with Iran.

"The decision to keep Abdallah in detention is very distressing," Reporters Without Borders said. "We call for his immediate release and we urge the Syrian authorities to put a stop to their practice of arbitrary detention."

Arrested on 17 December 2007, Abdallah was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on 29 October 2008 along with 11 other signatories of the so-called Damascus Declaration, a call for a radical overhaul of relations with Lebanon. He was due to be released on 16 June.

He and the other signatories were convicted of "disseminating false information with the aim of harming the state," "membership of a secret organisation designed to destabilise the state" and "inciting ethnic and racial tension."

Another of the signatories, fellow-journalist Akram Al-Bounni, who was arrested on 12 December 2008, was released on completion of his sentence on 13 June. Abdallah should have been freed just as Bounni was, but the Syrian authorities clearly decided otherwise.

The authorities have been cracking down harder on the media since the second half of 2009. Under prodding from the intelligence services, the information ministry has been interrogating and arresting human rights activists, lawyers and journalists. Many of the journalists have been questioned about articles that are said to constitute "an attack on the nation" or "threat to state security." Few have dared to talk about this, even anonymously.

The office of the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed on 13 September 2009 and placed under seal.

According to the information available to Reporters Without Borders, at least five journalists and netizens are currently detained in Syria:

- the journalist Fayez Sara, held since 3 January 2008
- the cyber-dissident Firas Saad, held since 6 May 2008
- the cyber-dissident Habib Saleh, held since 6 May 2008
- the journalist Ali Al-Abdallah, held since 17 December 2007
- the cyber-dissident Tarek Biassi, held since 7 July 2007

Syria was ranked 165th out of 179 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. It is on the Reporters Without Borders list of Internet Enemies and President Bashar Al-Assad is on the Reporters Without Borders list of "Predators of Press Freedom."