Something is rotten at Syria's ministry of Communications

Syria used to block websites if they were critical of the regime. These days, any excuse will do.
By Abdullah Ali
Syria, internet, banned websites.
Cartoon courtesy of the website 'Ila aein, Suria?' (Where to, Syria?).

DAMASCUS, Nov. 27, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) - There was a time in Syria when websites were blocked for obvious political reasons. Websites opposed to the regime, or ones posting occasional articles critical of the government would find themselves banned in Syria. The majority of these sites, such as Elpah or Akhbar Ash-Sharq, were in any case operating from outside Syria.

Under the term of Communications minister Amr Salem, all this has changed.

Salem opened the door for the blocking of websites for the silliest reasons and under the silliest pretexts. Now, it is no longer necessary to be in the opposition to see your website blocked. It is no longer necessary to cross what is considered a red line in order to be silenced.

It doesn't even matter anymore if your website is in Syria or abroad. An important distinction, that one, since the government had always used the argument that blocking websites operated from abroad was a last recourse against people who could not be pursued under the country's legal system.

Since July 25, 2007, the government's policy on blocking websites has taken a new and dangerous turn. That was when Salem issued a memo threatening website owners with temporary or indefinite blocking for any article that attacks a politician or falls under the definition of libel or defamation.

The implications of the memo are far-reaching because they take the blocking policy out of the political context into a general and ill-defined framework. Furthermore, it turns the issue into a personal one because it is now sufficient for one person to consider that a report affected his reputation for the minister to block the site.

This is aggravated by the fact that no judicial order is required for a website to be blocked. It is sufficient for the offended person to file a complaint with the minister, who is the sole judge and jury for deciding whether or not the complaint is justified.

This was indeed what happened. Following the memo, the communications minister closed down five websites, including 'Kulluna Shouraqa' [We Are All Partners], 'Al-Nazaha' [The Integrity] and 'Damas Post', in a move that was considered a blunt violation of freedom of expression, especially since the decision to block these websites was issued verbally, in secret and without any prior notice.

It didn't stop there.

More recently, the popular social networking site Facebook was blocked in Syria, upsetting the Syrian youth who had only recently discovered the site. The very next day, authorities also blocked 'Shabablak', which is considered one of the best Syrian youth forums and the most respectful of the rules of free dialogue, laws and morals. It was estimated to have 56,000 subscribers when it was shut down.
The forum is part of the Nobles group run by engineer Dr. Muhammad Na’im al-Jabi who wrote a touching article on Nobles News about the blocking of the Shabablak. He eulogized it as a son would eulogize his father and posted, next to the article, a copy of the blocking decision issued by the director general of the public communications institute.

This was the first time in Syria that a website was able to get a copy of a blocking decision - Al-Jabi received it by anonymous fax -, and it seems that Dr. Al-Jabi committed a great sin by publishing it because on November 21, Nobles News found itself blocked as well.

In an interview with MENASSAT.COM, Dr. Al-Jabi said: “In principle, I am not against blocking websites. However, any blocking decision should be issued based on legal stipulations, reasons and evidence. This decision should be delivered to the concerned side so that it is able to object to it, and only then is it implemented. But to have the blocking carried out in this sudden way without any valid reasons is completely unacceptable."

According to Bassam al-Qadi, who administers the 'Nisa’ Souria' [The Women of Syria] website, "the blocking of websites in Syria is a blunt violation of the freedom of the people to acquire knowledge regardless of its source, to partake in creating it and to interact with it. It is also a violation of their right to express themselves peacefully”.

He added: “This policy only expresses the narrow-mindedness of those taking the decisions. They don’t seem to have grasped, to this day, the fact that the Internet world is impervious to closed minds. Whatever they do, the only way to secure the success of their policy is by cutting Syria off from the world altogether."

The website has posted an online petition against the blocking of websites in Syria under the slogan 'Everyone has a right to know'. It includes a partial list of 110 websites blocked to date.