Six-month ban in Syria revisited

More should be done to reverse the six-month old ban against MENASSAT in Syria, our Syrian correspondent, Abdallah Ali, says.
DAMASCUS, June 13, 2008 (MENASSAT) – From the moment MENASSAT began writing about Syria's crackdown on the internet community last year, it attracted the attention of Syrian authorities.

In fact, 6 months ago – two months after launching the site in November 2007 – the Syrian authorities decided that MENASSAT was enough of a threat to their authority that it restricted Syria's Internet users from accessing the site.

Perhaps it was a coincidence that MENASSAT decided to launch at a time when the Syrian Communication Ministry launched its fiercest crackdown against what it deemed to be "controversial websites."

In Syria, we remember the infamous ministerial circular that announced the banning frenzy which shut down more than 150 Syrian websites in a few months time, from August to November 2007.

MENASSAT covered the banning "epidemic" in Syria by publishing the first article about the Syrian authorities' banning of the social networking site Facebook. But the news continued on MENASSAT, leading up to recent bans of Wikipedia and the banning of the Beirut-based website, Now Lebanon.

Opinion articles were featured on MENASSAT criticizing Syria's policy, or rather, its lack of policy regarding some formal criteria for the bans. The criticism invoked article 38 of the Syrian constitution, which states that it is the right of every citizen to express his opinion freely in writing, speaking or any other means of expression. It also implies that such rights should be granted to those citizens looking to receive knowledge from all sources, without limitations.

To be sure, MENASSAT was not the only website to cover the news of the ban campaign. But it was the first to be restricted for its coverage. 

Why MENASSAT and not some of the other sites critical of the Syrian regime?

Perhaps it was because MENASSAT's news coverage has been characterized by impartiality unfamiliar to other Arabic websites on the issues. They avoided exaggeration and sensationalism because the "scoop" wasn't the motivation.

MENASSAT published stories related to Syria's crackdown against free speech by highlighting the issues through a uniquely Syrian legal framework, mainly by using Syrian reporters like Omar Abdelatif, Khaled Al Ekhetyar, Mihyedin Iso, Bassam el Kadi who have since become regular site contributors.

But this approach didn't save MENASSAT from the Syrian Communication Ministry's wrath; instead it put a bigger target on MENASSAT's back. MENASSAT has nonetheless continued its mission, covering the media news in Syria with diligence.

I have credited MENASSAT for not reacting to the Syrian ban. Its criticism of the Syrian decision was levelheaded, and it did nothing to try to convince the authorities to withdraw the ban.

However, as a Syrian journalist working in this tenuous media environment, the fact that they haven't done more to reverse the ban is in a sense helping the regime because fewer Internet users have been able to access it's valuable content here.

I can say there are two reasons that MENASSAT hasn't had the impact in Syria that it should have had.

First, Syria's Internet gatekeepers blocked its presence in the early stages of its existence.

Second, many Internet users in Syria still don't know the tools to circumvent the ban – namely the use of proxy sites that by-pass the regimes simple restrictive protocols. 

[Luckily, the Syrian ban on MENASSAT hasn't affected the group's reporter base in Syria; MENASSAT is still able to cover news from Syria.]

Still, I say this knowing that the web traffic coming from Syria is still relatively high when compared to other Arab countries, and I'm sure the level would be even higher if it wasn't for the ban.

But if I were going to dispense advice to MENASSAT in order to facilitate greater access of its site to the Syrian reader, I would say:

Use a more comprehensive newsletter with all the articles attached in full. This would allow the Syria reader to by-pass the ban and read the articles published on MENASSAT through his email.

And secondly, MENASSAT should establish media linkages with a number of Syrian sites in order to republish MENASSAT stories or at least parts of them.

With these two methods, MENASSAT would limit the damage caused by the ban, and I suspect widen its audience base, increasing its impact on the Syrian media scene.