Syria gags Al Nazaha news website

Abdallah Ali, director of the Syrian websites Al Nazaha and Al Nazaha News and a MENASSAT correspondent, has been released after spending thirteen days in detention. But chances that Al Nazaha will make yet another comeback appear slim.

BEIRUT, August 19, 2008 (MENASSAT/RSF/ANHRI) – Abdallah Suleiman Ali was arrested on July 30 and detained for thirteen days at the state security department in Damascus for "persisting in publishing legal and political articles  criticizing the role of the government."

Abdallah Ali is a MENASSAT correspondent, and the director if two Syrian news websites, Al Nazaha and Al Nazaha News. Al Nazaha has been subject to government harassment ever since it was created in 2005.

Abdallah Ali's latest arrest came as the result of articles published on Al Nazaha that challenged the legality of Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari's government.

Based on Article 122 of the Syrian constitution, Abdallah Ali concluded that al-Otari's government is not entitled to hold Cabinet meetings.

By detaining and interrorgating Abdallah Ali, the Syrian authorities have effectively shut down Al Nazaha. Since Abdallah Ali's release on August 12, visitors are met by the statement, "This site is closed due to editorial reasons." Abdallah Ali has chosen not to comment on what happened.

Press freedom organizations have condemned Abdallah Ali's arrest.

"His arrest was an unacceptable but unfortunately common method of intimidation," Reporters without Borders (RSF) said in a press release.

"The owners of opposition websites are constantly harassed by the Syrian authorities and are often held incommunicado although the constitution guarantees free expression. We urge the government to put a stop to its harassment of [Abdallah Ali,"] RSF said.

In Cairo, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) pledged support for Abdallah Ali and Al Nazaha.

"Banning the two sites and arresting their manager shows a lack of respect for the law in Syria, clearly exposes the shameful situation of the law and clearly demonstrates the fate of freedom of expression in this state," said Gamal Eid, ANHRI's executive director.

ANHRI has offered all of its capacity to aid Abdallah Ali and all other Syrian activists, whether by providing alternative websites, blogs or technical aid, "so as to contribute humbly to the elimination of the policy of blocking websites and terrorizing activists in Syria, and to support freedom of expression and Internet freedom there."

Al Nazaha, which means Integrity, was created on August 8, 2005, and focuses mainly
on legal and political issues and defending the independence of the judicial system.

In its three years of existence, Al Nazaha has faced many obstacles.

The company hosting the site pulled the plug on it in November 2006 after getting a visit from the Damascus state security department. A hacker attack erased all of the site's content on 23 June 2007. In the same month, a fire caused destruction to Al Nazaha's offices in Tartous.

After the site was blocked in October 2007 as a result of a Damascus court decision, Abdallah Ali famously sued the Telecommunications Minister the following month to get the decision rescinded. The complaint was eventually withdrawn.

In March of this year, Al Nazaha made a successfull comeback at a new address, But Abdallah Ali has been repeatedly interrogated and threatened since in an attempt to force him to close down his site.

Two other Syrian websites, the Syrian Mirror and Syria Life, recently suffered a similar fate. The Syrian Mirror, an independent news website, was blocked on April 18, 2006 after operating for just over three years. Syria Life was blocked on February 13, 2008.

Syria is on the Reporters Without Borders list of "Internet Enemies". At least five cyber-dissidents are currently in jail in Syria for expressing their views online, which makes it the Middle East's most repressive country as regards Internet users.

Article 38 of the Syrian constitution nonetheless says: "All citizens have the right to express their views freely to everyone, in writing or by any other means of communication (...) The state guarantees freedom of expression, printing and publication in accordance with the republic's laws."