Syrian PM lashes out against electronic media

It is not the first time that the Internet has come under attack in Syria. But it is the first time that Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari has lashed out against websites publicly and in the presence of the who's who of Syrian journalism.
syrian escape
© Srdjan Stamenkovic

DAMASCUS, April 15, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Mohammad al-Otari made his comments during a meeting with the gathered editors in chief of Syria's newspapers last week, as the official newspaper al-Baath reported in its April 13 edition. Also present were the Ministers of Information, Finance and Economy and their aides.

Electronic media, al-Otari said, were depressing the nation's citizens by spreading false news.

The Prime Minister also perceived a growing threat from sources outside the country who operate under the banner of freedom of expression but whose real aim is to change public opinion in Syria.

Finally, he accused the Internet community of being "nouveaux riches" who are trying to establish their own media empires for financial gain.

A similar accusation was leveled at journalism training programs which, al-Otari said, are luring journalists away from the official media into the private sector.

The Prime Minister's comments were all the more astonishing since the few remaining Syrian news websites (the ones haven't already been banned) have been beaten into submission by a number of governmental memos .

The last such memo was issued ahead of the Arab summit and banned "any news items insulting an Arab country or any of the Arab leaders."

The websites obliged the government by respecting the new guidelines only to be publicly trashed by the Prime Minister last Saturday.

MENASSAT spoke to activist Bassam al-Qadi, a journalist with the Syrian newspaper al-Nour and supervisor of the Syrian Women's Observatory, about al-Otari's speech.

MENASSAT: What are we supposed to think about al-Otari's outburst.

"I find these accusations to be a new expression of the anger of Syrian government and its head, Mohammad al-Otari, against any media other than the official ones. The Internet has allowed Syrian journalists to free themselves from the wooden coffin of Syrian journalism. It has succeeded in shedding light on the harsh realities that Syrians are living on all levels, be it cultural, social, economical and political. This creates a problem to those who want to embellish the reality at any price, believing that the ostrich policy is still an option."

MENASSAT: What is behind the Prime Minister's accusations against journalism training programs?

"The government knows that training is an essential part of any development. Considering that training introduces journalists to advanced media techniques, it means that the journalists would the be able to write articles answering to all the standards, especially integrity, which threatens those seeking to hide the reality at any price.

"On the other hand, we see the quality of the official programs, which are controlled by the government. They have widely failed in having any presence, except the efforts of some individual journalists who have made great efforts to evolve in a one way or another. This development was muzzled by the official vision, which incidentally destroyed many excellent programs in the past 20 years.

"I should stress here that if the Syrian government had the right to get financial aid from the outside, then this should also apply to the Syrian citizen."

MENASSAT: Do you find any contradiction in the government seeking to free the economy and its harsh policy to control the media?

"On the contrary, they are in perfect harmony. In fact, the economic chaos aiming to impoverish the population, especially the women, should be accompanied with muzzling the media so that it doesn't expose the devastation spreading everyday."

MENASSAT: Who are these "nouveaux riches" the Prime Minister was talking about?

"Al-Otari should answer this question himself. Who creates this class in any country? Do they come from outer space? Who broke all the standards in widening the gap between the social classes in Syria? Who opened up the real estate market until the relative price of a Syrian apartment reached that of an apartment in New York City? Who made the fuel price the highest in the world in comparison with the income? The answer is definitely not with me, and I don't think it is with you either."

MAZEN DARWISH, head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, was equally dismissive of the Prime Minister's comments.

"The general state of frustration the Syrian citizen is living is a result of the mismanagement of al-Otari and his economical team," he said.

"I totally agree with the Prime Minister that there are some 'nouveaux riches' working on establishing media empires [in Syria.] But I assure him that they are the result of government corruption and they are its strongest defenders because of their vital connection to it. I would like to ask al-Otari why it is that the private media are suddenly an act of the devil when his whole government's strategy is based on privatization and the destruction of the public sector."

Some media observers are speculating that the Prime Minister's speech is likely to be followed by a new crackdown on websites in Syria. Last year, more than 130 Syrian websites were banned.