Ban it and they will come

Sometimes, in Syria, the best thing that can happen to an article is to be banned by the authorities.
Dabbour's censored cover (l.) and the original one (r.). R.R.

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT, Mar. 5, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The Syrian authorities have forced the satirical magazine Dabbour to reprint one of its issues, number 104 of January 19, 2008, replacing an article critical of the government with an innocuous one about the new traffic law.

The article asked questions about why some ministers and other officials had recently been relieved of their posts, and why no information was given to the public.

Both the article and the cartoon asked the question, "Why are the people always the last to know?"

The article started with what it called "one of the most common conversations among the Syrian citizens."

"It goes something like this: 'Did you hear that they deposed this or that minister?' 'Do you know they want to appoint this or that person?' 'Do you know why they deposed that minister?' Ministers are removed from office and gossip spreads around the country. The supporters of the deposed minister talk about his integrity, while his enemies shout their relief 'because he caused so much trouble.'"

In Syria, all newspapers and magazines are printed and distributed by the same state-owned print-shop which is crawling with Mukhabarat agents who are always on the look-out for articles that cross the "red lines."

This one caught their attention.

Dabbour magazine was forced to settle with the Ministry of Information; the offending article and cartoon were removed and the magazine was reprinted with a new article and cartoon about Syria's new traffic law.

Just a few days before, the authorities had already banned the distribution of the business magazine al-Moujtamaa al-Iktissadi because of an article which talked about how Syrian state officials go about obtaining foreign nationalities.

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) denounced the banning of Dobbour only two weeks after it happened.

It also sent out the original article to hundreds of websites and bloggers, "allowing millions of readers to read it," according to Mazen Darwish, the Center's director.

MENASSAT: Why did you wait two weeks before calling attention to this issue?

"The reason was that it took us some time to get our hands on the banned issue."

MENASSAT: Doesn't it put you in danger to republish a banned article?

"Of course, this is dangerous. But if we think this way, we won't have the courage to say anything anymore. An additional trial will not change much."

MENASSAT: Do you think the people at Dabbour Magazine were not aware such an article would be banned?

M.D.: "In Syria, it is not only about pre-censorship but also about post-censorship. There is no real censorship before printing; there is mostly self-censorship.  A Syrian journalist always re-reads his article ten times; nine of which are to make sure he hasn't crossed any red lines. Sometimes, the journalist or the editorial management imagines an article could pass without causing any problems."

MENASSAT: What has been the effect of your republishing of the article?

M.D.: "After we raised this issue all the websites talked about it. Without realizing it the government allowed a much greater number of readers to read the article than if they had just allowed Dabbour to publish it. Sometimes, censorship give the article and its writer a bigger chance to shine."

The people at Dabbour are no strangers to censorship. Most of its editors worked at another satirical magazine, Doumari, until it was shut down in July 2003. Dabbour was started by a group of former Doumari editors, including Ghassan Taleb.