Syria: The dreaded invitation for coffee

More than a hundred websites have been banned in the past few months in Syria, where online journalists are left to guess what is allowed and what will land them in jail.
By Abdullah Ali
syria internet.jpg

DAMASCUS, Jan. 8, 2008 (MENASSAT.COM) – It usually starts with a request "to come and have coffee" at one branch or another of the Syrian security services. When the invitation comes - usually by way of an informal phone call, rather than an official summons - the website journalist knows he is in for trouble.

Sometimes, the invitation in and by itself can mean the end for a website.

In a recent case, quoted by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, the company hosting the An-Nazaha website ended decided to end its contract with the website after its owner was "invited to have coffee" at one of the security services, which wanted to question him about an article posted to the site. The same thing happened with the website, "Syrian Mirror," which was hosted by the same company.

An invitation for coffee is often accompanied, or preceded, by a background investigation of the owner of a website, especially if it is a new website. Apparently, the Internet hosting companies inside Syria routinely inform the security services when a new website is launched. The security services then embark on a fact-finding mission about the website owner, his collaborators and his financial backers.

This could be considered a normal procedure if it was done discreetly. But unfortunately, the investigation is usually quite public, often raising suspicion among friends and neighbors.

The final step is suspending the website altogether. The Syrian regime has recently launched its fiercest campaign against websites to date, with more than one hundred websites suspended in the past few months. Most of these were being operated from inside Syria, but some foreign websites have been banned as well, including – for no apparent reason –

Part of the problem is the lack of a specific law dealing with online publishing. The recent shutdowns were sanctioned only by a memorandum issued by the Minister of Communications on July 25, 2007.

The most extreme measure, of course, is the jailing of journalists, often for long periods of time and without a judicial process. This was the case of journalist Imad Saidi of Syrian Television, who was arrested several months ago for having accessed Islamic websites and having communicated with some of their members.

However, and in most cases, the arrestee is referred to the appropriate judicial authorities, as happened to the young journalist Mouhanad Abdul Rahman who was arrested twice, the first time after being accused of contacting an opposition Syrian website outside Syria.

The second time, he was held in prison for a month for helping a colleague prepare questions for an interview with the head of the federation of trade unions in Syrian. The colleague, Alaadine Hamdoun, was meeting with the official for an interview for the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper, published in London. However, his questions provoked the official who reported his discomfort to the Syrian authorities which in turn arrested Hamdoun. Mouhanad was later summoned as a witness, after which he too was imprisoned for a month before being freed and judged before a military court. Then the case was closed.

Online journalists are even more at risk than print journalists because they are not members of the press syndicate, which theoretically provides journalists with legal support.

In practice, the press syndicate is of little use to journalists, however, because of its total submission to the executive authority.

In some cases, the press syndicate even stands against the journalist in trouble, as happened with Wadah Muhieddine who faced a legal trial because of an article he wrote on corruption in Aleppo’s city council. The press syndicate abandoned him and he faced a harsh campaign from the official media means. 

In the case of online journalism, the legal vacuum is a constant headache for journalists. What is accepted today could be rejected tomorrow, and what is allowed by one official could be forbidden later by another. The journalist is compelled with each story he writes to ask himself: Am I allowed to write this or not? And what will be the price to pay? After asking these questions, he might decide to write his story regardless, or to discard it and look for a less troublesome story.