'Integrity' returns to Syria

When the Syrian anti-corruption site Al-Nazaha ("Integrity") was banned in 2007, it took every possible step to get the ban revoked through the judicial channels. In the end they were unsuccessful. This week, Alanazaha.org has resurfaced as alnazahanews.com.

BEIRUT, March 27, 2008 (MENASSAT) – When the alnazaha.org website was created on August 8, 2005 by a group of Syrian law professionals, its main aim was to expose government corruption.

Initially, it was successful. It organized several campaigns against corrupt government officials, including one against the governor of Tartous, Salim Kaboul, that ended in him being removed from his position.

For a whole year, the website was able to do its work without facing any major obstacles.

However, its many campaigns inevitably created many enemies resulting in the site being blocked for Syrian Internet users in 2007.

But let's get back to the beginning.

In September 2006, Al-Nazaha published a complaint by a group of researchers at a sensitive scientific government body. (It was Syria's nuclear committee but Al-Nazaha preferred not to mention this at the time.)

Following this, Al-Nazaha's manager was summoned and questioned by one of the security branches associated with military intelligence. Ayman al-Saleh, the head of the al-Marja Internet provider which was hosting al-Nazaha at the time, was also summoned.


As a result, al-Saleh ended the hosting contract in March 2007, confiscating all the archives of the site which remain unavailable to this day.

The people at Al-Nazaha immediately took action to ensure the continuity of the site, making a deal with a new hosting company.

The website continued to publish investigative reports about corruption that mentioned the names of an MP, the health official in Tartus and several judges.

Then, on the night of June 24, 2007, a fire broke out at the website's offices in Tartus. The fire destroyed all the furniture and equipments as well as a number of important files.

Al-Nazaha always maintained that the fire could not have been caused by an electrical problem as the authorities said at the time. But no one was prosecuted and no investigation was opened; the authorities preferring to treat the fire as an accident despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The fire and the resulting financial loss was a huge blow to the website but the team at Al-Nazaha nevertheless gathered their strength and within three weeks the website was up and running again.

Then, on October 4, 2007, Al-Nazaha was taken offline without any warning.

The employees were dumbfounded, especially since officials had declared more than once that president Bashir Assad approved of Al-Nazaha's work. After all, Al-Nazaha was working to expose corruption, not to bring down the regime.

Shortly before that, the Syrian Internet community had been shocked to learn of the existence of a memo by Communications Minister, Amro Salem, which opened the door for the blocking of websites not just for political reasons but on the basis of one person arguing defamation, and without the need for a judicial order.

After a lengthy discussion among the staff, Al-Nazaha decided to file a lawsuit against Salem before the Administrative Court in Damascus in order to get the ban revoked.

This produced very interesting results.

At first, the Minister denied any knowledge of a ban, denying to the court through his attorney, that the order to shut down Al-Nazaha had come from his office.

This prompted the curiosity of the website's lawyer who filed a request to the Minister asking which department ordered the ban, if not his, and what were the reasons behind the decision.

Military intelligence

For a whole month there was no reply.

Then, suddenly a fax from the Minister's office rolled out of the fax machine.

It said, "The order to ban came from Department 225 (according to fax number 389 dated October 4, 2007.)"

It was the first time that anyone had proved, in writing no less, that the intelligence services are involved in the blocking of websites in Syria.

With the fax in hand, the website's lawyer decided to take the case one step further. He requested the questioning of the head of military intelligence, knowing that department 225 is under his jurisdiction.

This news spread like wildfire in Syria; the mere thought of anyone confronting the head of military intelligence in court was absurd.

When the trial resumed a month later, the head of military intelligence was indeed summoned by the court but his testimony was immediately postponed until one week later.

Then, on January 5, 2008, the website's lawyer suddenly withdrew his request for the head of military intelligence to be questioned. No explanation was given.

And so the case of Al-Nazaha.org ended.

Around the same time, a court in Cairo ruled that blocking websites was against the constitution except under extreme circumstances when national security is at stake.

The Syrian judiciary, whose constitution is modeled on the Egyptian one, missed an historic occasion to follow the example of the Egyptian court.

Al-Nazaha tried and failed to follow the legal procedures and get the ban revoked through the official channels.

But, as one of Al-Nazaha;s collaborators said, "We will not bow in the face of pressure."

So they decided on another approach.

On Tuesday of this week, www.alnazaha.org resurfaced on the web as www.alnazahanews.com.