[ Saalouk #3: Mazen Darwish ] 'Syrian media is still incapable of reflecting reality'

A journalist and an activist for press freedom, Mazen Darwish is not easily deterred. Only just released from Adra prison, he talks to MENASSAT with candor about the many shortcomings of the Syrian media. And yet he refuses to admit defeat: 'Defending press freedom is a duty for each of us, and I believe a whole new generation is holding on to the values of journalism.' Darwish is our 'Saalouk #3.'
Mazen Darwish. R.R.

Editor's Note: During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance before the coming of the Prophet, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles people who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #3' is Syrian activist/journalist Mazen Darwish.

[ Saalouk #3: Mazen Darwish ] 'All I want is to publish it'

MENASSAT: You were recently arrested. Can you describe to us the harassment you were subjected to recently as a journalist, while you were being held under investigation in Adra prison?

"This is not an unique case. Many journalists have been subjected to such harassment. The authorities in Adra make sure never to divulge any information about what happens there and expose their failure and their incapacity to control the crisis and protect the citizens and their private properties.

MENASSAT: What exactly did you go to Adra to investigate?

"The story was that some citizens had started riots there, following an act of murder. So I visited the area to interview the people and to take pictures of the houses and private properties that had been vandalized. In fact, I was able to observe many violations that occurred even on the part of the police.

"So the authorities tried to talk me out of publishing my information, through threats and promises accompanied by the sarcastic, 'We want to honor you.' When I refused to comply, they arrested me and seized my papers, the pictures I had taken and my laptop computer. After I refused to publish the events as they wanted them to appear, they referred me to the Military Court, accusing me of inciting civil and sectarian clashes, and impersonating a journalist."

"After being detained in Adra for one day, I was detained again for two days while waiting to face military court. After that, I was released but not without having my press card confiscated.

As soon as I was released on Jan. 15th, I filed a complaint with the Minister of Internal Affairs who decided to open an investigation that is still on-going. This is one of the positive signs. But the case is still under study with the military general prosecution, which is still holding my papers and my laptop awaiting its decision."

'The opposition media are really
very similar to the official media
as far as bias, lack of balance and
political dependence are concerned'

MENASSAT: How do you evaluate the performance of the Syrian media, both in the opposition and ruling party. Is it able to reflect subjectively the true opinion and the living situation of the Syrian citizen?

"No. Political media outlets, whether they are in the opposition or supporting the regime, are not able to operate away from the tactical and steering guidelines, which have made the news they cover closer to political parties’ news than real journalism.

"Still, the Syrian media has somehow developed during the last few years in the social and economical fields through the issues they treat, the style and the material used. But concerning some political and general issues, it is still incapable of developing the general opinion, and of reflecting the political reality away from the official point of view, for it is directly related to the regime.

"As for the private media outlets, they are young in experience. Also, the state of mind of their owners often makes them semi-official anyway, in addition to being limited by the legal environment they have to operate in, which makes them subject to many conditions and restrictions.

"Then there is the financial aspect. The Syrian media are not very performing as a market, which means there is little money to be made. And even in those institutions where money is not  problem, the owners are often incapable of running a media enterprise, business-wise. All this results in very little money being spent on the media.

"Concerning the opposition media, regardless of their ideology, they are not legally recognized, and do not have legal press outlets. Their press is actually primitive and leans towards being party statements.

"We have studied the media performance during the [May 2007 presidential] referendum, and we came to the conclusion that the opposition media are really very similar to the official media as far as their bias, lack of balance, and political dependence are concerned."

[Bashar Assad, the only candidate, won with 97.62 percent of the votes, Ed.]

"The opposition press mostly depends on the Internet and newsletters. But since many of their publications are banned, they can’t reach the Syrian citizen easily, and their distribution outside Syria doesn’t allow them to communicate with the people in Syria. This goes a long way to explain their weakness."

MENASSAT: Is there a confidence issue between the Syrian citizen and the media?

"This issue started many decades ago, and is not new whether for the official or the private sectors. In all fairness, we ought to say that the private sector is still young and the legal environment it operates in imposes many restrictions. In addition to that, the Syrian reader is in contact with other, foreign media, and seeks perfection for its own media, for he is smart and is not easily satisfied."

MENASSAT: Syria has recently witnessed an explosion of news websites. What do you think of e-media in the Syrian context? Has it been a good thing for press freedom? Should special laws be introduced to control this service?

"There is no doubt that e-media is imposing itself as an alternative to the press in Syria. It is gaining importance thanks to its freedom, its low cost, in addition to the easy and fast transfer of the news. This has made it compete with the traditional press. Also, the interactive option is highly capable of attracting journalists and readers. In addition to that, e-media have been dealing with a wider range of subjects and issues than the mainstream press, and this has especially attracted young people.

"But the electronic media too have to operate in a very limited environment. The Syrian e-media currently works at 25 percent of its potential. The banning of websites has become one of the main characteristics of e-media in Syria, in addition to the non-recognition of e-media by the government.

"Concerning special laws to govern the e-media, I think this would be a horrible idea, and  it is witnessed in only very few countries. We should be very careful in wanting to control the Internet and e-media, for it would turn them into a press deprived of its essential potential of being a virtual space for freedom.

"This is a very delicate matter, for the penal code protects the regular citizen from defamation and contains legal assurances. Creating a separate law to control the e-media is what we fear, while the penal code alone is sufficient to solves this problem.

"As for raising the ceiling of freedom, e-media has definitely crossed many red lines that the televised and printed media were not used to face. This has helped in breaking the wall of fear to discuss sensitive issues whether political or social, not to mention taking a huge step in this area, forcing the printed press to elevate its ceiling of freedom and deal with these issues in a different manner, in order to compete with the e-media.

MENASSAT: The People’s Council has asked the Ministry of Communications to follow up with a decision forcing websites to mention the real names of authors of website comments, and their email addresses, or the website could be permanently banned. Do you think the Syrian media and the freedom of expression is in continuous regression?

"This action has contributed in [further] narrowing the freedom of the press [in Syria.] The regression of the Syrian media is what led to the birth of New Media, its development and diversity. [The Ministry's decision] was a horrifying fact for the potential investors in this field, for the banning operations take place outside the frame of the law in an administrative and security manner, where the owner of the website has no legal recourse to sue the parties asking to ban his website, and where the decision is not taken by a legal independent authority."

'The Syrian government needs to realize
that the world has become a village, in
which it is impossible to hide information'

MENASSAT: The international press advocacy group, Article 19, has listed Syria among the top ten 'enemies of the internet and freedom of expression.' Do you consider that Syria's policy of banning websites constitutes a steady method to kill the media and the freedom of opinion?

"This policy is undeniable, with fifteen websites banned so far by Internet provider Etisalat alone plus many more by other official institutions. Banning the distribution and printing of newspapers is much less prevalent now than the violations against the e-media, for the margin of issues treated here is wider than in the printed media.

"There is a real problem concerning the censorship and the banning of websites. And it seems that we need to reconcile between the regime and the media, for the government is taking an aggressive negative stand against the media and the press. It needs to realize the importance of the media and the impossibility to hide information in the era of open media, where the world has become a village open to all kinds of foreign media. Therefore, supporting the Syrian media and its development would be of a lesser cost than trying to ban and control it.

"If we look at the televised media, we find that the as-Sham channel, which was shut down and forbidden to work in Syria, is one of only two TV channels in Syria – which means that 50 percent of the televised media is not accepted. Even Dunia channel is broadcasting from the free zone and is not allowed to broadcast any news items. This also gives us an idea about the government’s treatment of the media and its lack of trust towards media and journalists."

MENASSAT: Syrian Information Minister, Mohsen Bilal, HAS AID,  'There are no red lines in the media in Syria. These are only excuses the media persons use. Those who know how to act enjoy complete freedom.' What do you have to say about this, amid all the violations journalists suffer from?

"I don’t mean to disrespect the Minister, but if he cares to look at the Press & Publication Law, he would read many restrictions concerning the material that may be published. The reality is that any journalist working in Syria is very familiar with the long chain of complex red lines.

"The problem is not a law, or an article in the law, but in the [government's] view of the media and its role. Until the government makes up its mind concerning this matter, we will have to work many more years in an environment that doesn’t respect the media, nor does it help its development and evolution.

"Many decisions are taken verbally, as happened in the case of journalist Waddah Mohieddine. These practices are done under the cover of the law, or even without it, wherever the government means to restrict freedom of speech and information through banning the publication, firing people from newspapers or stopping people from being hired. There is true art and expertise in these practices."

MENASSAT: What role does the Association of Syrian Journalists play in the face of the repression and harassment of journalists?

"It is an association, not a syndicate. It is not showing any support for the journalists, and its composition and internal system prevent it from playing its true role. There is a project to develop the system and transform the association into a real syndicate, but the project is still sleeping in the drawers of the Syrian authorities.

"The erroneous and non-professional practices of the association, going back many decades, has given it a bad reputation among Syrian journalists, because it never played any role in protecting and defending them or developing the media as a profession in general. There are some individual attempts to develop the association and the profession, but they are still below the real needs and expectations."

MENASSAT: Is press freedom in Syria a dead-end street?

"The answer to that question is definitely no. I believe that a whole new generation of journalists is holding on to the values of journalism, and I have hope in the media institutions, especially the electronic ones, and in the fact that history never repeats itself.

"The values are individual, and the journalist is responsible for their application, in addition to the governments and regimes. The operation is integral, starting with the journalist then the institution, the law and the government’s view of the media and its role.

"Internationally, there is an interest in the values of the press, its importance and its role, especially since dozens of people are paying with their life for their work and their attachment to the profession.

"Freedom of press is a value in itself, and defending it is a duty for each and every citizen and journalist. It is also the duty of the states, the governments and the systems. The worst that can happen [to as society] is to waste this freedom, because it is intrinsically linked to the development of civilized society."

[ Saalouk #2: Tom Young ] A modern-day David Roberts
Posted on 01/25/2008 - 12:48
The paintings of David Roberts, depicting an idyllic 19th-century Levant, are ubiquitous in many households in the region. Now, another romantic British painter, Tom Young, follows in Roberts' footsteps but with a difference. In Young's 21st-century Levant, not all is idyllic, as the artist takes his sketchbook to places like bombed-out South Beirut. TomYoung.jpg 
[ Saalouk #1: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad ] 'You don't get extra credit for being an Iraqi'
Posted on 01/04/2008 - 13:05
During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles Arab journalists who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #1' is Iraqi writer/photographer Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.