Shooting in the Dark: Outdoing Syria’s Media Blackout

Journalists from the Syria-News website work at their offices in Damascus on 4 November 2010 as Syria prepares to vote on an Internet law in a country where access to at least 240 sites is blocked. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Media membership in Syria has become taboo. International journalists and correspondents participate in a dangerous dance around government restrictions and the unspoken diktats of social repression.

Journalist Rached al-Issa relays a joke about the near total ban on media, “When Prince William was married a few months ago, he and his wife asked the press to give them a break so they could spend their honeymoon away from the cameras. Syrians then circulated a joke that the famous couple should spend their honeymoon in Syria…where press, reporters, and cameras are not allowed.” For this reason, al-Issa goes to work every day without his press card, “because it has become dangerous to its wearer.”

Palestine TV correspondent Amal Shaheen agrees with al-Issa. “Filming on the streets of Damascus has become a risk, and avoiding security forces has become every reporter’s concern. I now personally prefer to film at the studio and to postpone some reports until the situation returns to normal.” According to Shaheen, the complications of press work are not restricted to freedom of movement. “The problem is complex. For instance, some Syrian officials refuse to give press interviews,” she adds.

Johnny Abo, a correspondent for a number of international news agencies, explains: “The biggest problem we face is that Syrian authorities deal with reporters based on the political orientation of the agency or institution they represent.” He adds: “The imposed restrictions have created thousands of alternative correspondents. They have benefited from advances in technology and the electronic media, which cannot be dealt with in the same backward mentality of exclusion and selectivity.”

Al-Issa says that the media blackout and efforts to prevent journalists from working on the ground “not only violate the right of journalists to work and pursue the truth. It also violates a fundamental human right to access information.” He predicts that the government’s blackout policy will result in more deception and distortion of the truth. Al-Issa criticizes “the categorization of media outlets as either patriotic or suspect.” He considers this an attempt by the regime to mislead people into believing that there is only one credible source of news. “Such categorization may deny Syrians a real chance to form an independent opinion,” al-Issa says.

Shaheen believes that prohibitions on the media, which sometimes include shutting down offices, “have only distorted the facts, and in a way that is not favorable to the government.” She argues that the restrictions have in fact backfired on the regime: “They have left a negative impact on the Syrian government much more than the Syrian opposition…These measures have forced satellite channels to rely on eyewitnesses who are prone to exaggeration.” Shaheen asks, “If the regime is innocent of all accusations by the opposition, why not allow journalists to conduct their jobs normally?”

In turn, Abo believes that the blackout policy is not the right solution, even from the regime’s point of view. But he says that the Syrian regime “considers it the lesser of two evils. Media outlets are not charitable organizations. [They] cannot ask them to adopt the same propaganda-like language used in the local press.” He adds that Syrian officials are used to dealing with correspondents according to ridiculous and unfair political classifications. Abo concludes that “Western media does not accept the policy of one point of view only. The massive protests and demonstrations in the past few months have highlighted the complete absence of the other side.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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