Damascus--Sitting in a smoky downtown coffee shop, Syrian journalist Saleh (not his real name) instinctively redirects the conversation when he senses the waiter lingering a little too long in the vicinity. "So, how is your stay in Damascus?" he asks blandly. When the waiter disappears into the next room, Saleh continues his original, more serious train of thought.
"I don't think things will revert to the old way, but to a funny or false opening," he whispers. "The president says there's an opening with the press, but this is laughable when you consider the new papers."
Beginning last year, Syria's press--and more generally its civil society--showed signs of emerging from a deep slumber after three decades of harsh authoritarian rule under Hafez al-Assad. His death in June 2000 sparked hope that his son and successor, 35-year-old Bashar al-Assad, a Western-trained opthalmologist and computer aficionado, would ease the Syrian police state's viselike grip on society and promote political and economic reforms.
In the initial months of his presidency, Syria's press seemed to benefit from the more relaxed new atmosphere. State-controlled papers displayed unusual flair, publishing relatively lively discussions of democracy and political reform. Meanwhile, Syria saw the launch of its first independent newspapers in four decades.
More than a year later, press reforms have slowed to a trickle following a government backlash. State-owned papers have reverted to their docile old ways. And while the existence of independent publications represents a marked change from the past, local observers complain that they lack true grit. Saleh's cynicism reflects the sentiments of many reform-minded Syrian journalists and intellectuals who hoped for rapid reform under Bashar. To them, last year's "opening," or infitah, is a clear case of style over substance.
Hafez al-Assad led one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Accordingly, its media was one of the most highly censored in the region.
Syria boasted a lively independent press in the nearly two decades after independence from France in 1946. Despite frequent bouts of censorship after military coups and during the 1958-1961 union with Egypt, the Syrian media was a model for the Arab world. After the Baath Party coup of 1963, however, the incoming government banned all independent papers. When Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, he extended the Baath regime's total control over the press while successfully stifling all opposition to his rule.
Under Assad, the Syrian press was dominated by the state-run dailies Al-Thawra, Al-Baath, and Tishreen. Like state-controlled radio and television at the time, the papers were tame, tedious, and laden with paeans to Assad. Syrian censorship often extended beyond its borders to Lebanon--where Syrian troops were stationed beginning in 1976--and to the foreign media, where local and even exiled dissidents muted their criticisms of the Assad regime out of a well-founded fear of reprisals.
After years of repression, a wave of optimism hit Syria when Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency in July 2000. Bashar's reformist credentials were boosted by the highly publicized anti-corruption campaign that he ran in the last years of his father's rule. Moreover, he was identified with the younger and more liberal generation of Arab rulers who succeeded their fathers in countries such as Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain.
In his inaugural address, Bashar called for greater openness in the media: "Our educational, cultural and media institutions must be reformed and modernized in a manner that ... renounce[s] the mentality of introversion and negativity." Bashar then released some 600 political prisoners. The normally rigid state-controlled press began to feature cautious discussions of reform and democracy. The government allowed pro-regime political parties to launch newspapers, and Bashar licensed the country's first privately owned newspaper in nearly 40 years. Meanwhile, Internet use started to expand as Bashar, formerly the head of the Syrian Computer Society, promised 200,000 public connections by 2001.
All the while, intellectuals and interested citizens made increasingly bold calls for greater freedom and respect for human rights. During the summer of 2000, informal political discussion groups, or salons, sprouted up in the living rooms of intellectuals across the country. And in January 2001, a maverick parliamentarian named Riad al-Seif announced plans to launch an independent political party.
Soon after Bashar's inauguration, he replaced the heads of the major print and broadcast media. At the same time, he ordered the media to eschew garish honorifics such as "eternal guide" when referring to him--a common practice during his late father's rule.
Other officials declared the need for a media that would function as a watchdog over the government. "We want the media to be the fourth [estate] in the country," said newly appointed state television and radio director Fayez al-Sayegh in August 2000. "All government bodies are being told to open their doors and let everybody see the truth to serve the public interest." Many repressive regimes pay lip service to the idea of an independent press while forbidding independent journalism in practice, but these statements carried more weight at a time when a degree of political reform seemed within reach.
By September, signs of life were seen not in the Syrian press but in neighboring Lebanon, where some 20,000 Syrian troops are stationed and where Syria is the dominant power broker. Emboldened by Assad's moves, 99 domestic and exiled Syrian intellectuals published a petition in the daily Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir urging political reform and calling on the government to respect basic human rights, including freedom of expression and the press. The Syrian government took no action against the authors, although local media completely ignored the petition and foreign Arab newspapers that covered the story were banned.
The "Statement of the 99," as the document later became known, was the most prominent of a trickle of bold articles published by local and exiled dissidents in pan-Arab and Lebanese media last year. It catalyzed a small but growing reformist movement and later helped embolden Syria's state-controlled press. "After the prisoner releases, people began to speak out. An opening was encouraged," Saleh said. "Then there was the Statement of the 99 and a storm broke out."
In early October, the official daily Al-Thawra published economist and reform advocate Aref Dalila's unusually critical analysis of the state-run Syrian economy. Dalila lashed out at corruption and blamed the government for two decades of economic stagnation. In subsequent months, Al-Thawra featured articles by former political prisoners and intellectuals who were previously barred from writing in the papers. These authors began cautiously debating sensitive issues such as the financial accountability of government.
While provocative, the articles were not revolutionary by any standard and did not challenge the authority of the regime or the Baath party. Their tone and substance, however, were a marked departure from the past. "I submitted my first article and didn't think they would publish it," Dalila told CPJ in May. "There was a desire after the president's speech to...allow alternative opinions." (See Appendix A for an example).
In January 2001, one thousand intellectuals and citizens published a second declaration in pan-Arab and Lebanese newspapers, very similar to the "Statement of the 99." And once again, the Bashar government showed restraint. Although Syrian newspapers did not run the petition, the authorities also did not censor foreign papers that published it.
In the early morning hours of January 30, 2001, unidentified thugs assaulted writer Nabil Suleiman, the host of an intellectual salon, in the city of Lattakia. The incident occurred while Suleiman was on his way home, just hours after Information Minister Adnan Omran launched a blistering verbal attack against intellectuals and civil-society activists. Among other things, Omran accused Syrian reformists of taking money from foreign embassies.
A few days later, on February 8, in his first major interview since taking office, Bashar told the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat that "the government will stand firmly against any work that might cause harm to the public interest." Recalling the police-state rhetoric of his father's era, Bashar denounced unnamed Syrians who he claimed had "relations with foreign channels." He charged that the salons did not represent all of Syrian society and cautioned against overzealous reform.
Before long, the salons were suspended. Following Assad's lead, government officials issued a volley of acerbic comments about the civil society movement. Baath leaders reasserted their authority over the party's rank and file members. The chill quickly reached the press.
Bashar in a corner
At the near-empty Havana Café in downtown Damascus, former journalist Radwan (not his real name) sits over a steaming glass of mint tea. "Now the local press is back to where it was," he says glumly. "They cover the president and all his actions. The talk now is about modernization and development, whatever that means."
Indeed, the main state newspapers contain little of interest. Last year's mildly critical discussions of democracy and reform are gone. Instead, the pages of Al-Thawra are dominated by fawning coverage of the president, numbing stories about the activities of government ministers, and vociferous criticism of Israel.
Local journalists argue that Bashar al-Assad, though well intentioned in his drive for reform, ran into stiff resistance from entrenched interests in the regime. This so-called Old Guard, consisting of Hafez al-Assad's inner circle and the powerful intelligence apparatus that has run the country for decades (while allegedly amassing vast personal wealth), felt threatened by change and applied pressure to slow the quick pace of reform.
Now the regime focuses on economic reform and modernization. In the press, there is little or no substantive discussion of political reform. "When Bashar came to power people expected him to introduce many changes. They were wrong," one Damascus-based Western diplomat commented. "He has many handicaps: no career in the party, army, or the security services. I think he wants to change, but...he has no recipe so the easiest thing is to continue in the path of his father for the time being."
Many Syrian journalists and intellectuals are convinced that the seeds of change have already been planted, however. Critics of the state express themselves in the pages of Lebanese and pan-Arab newspapers or on satellite channels such as Qatar's popular Al-Jazeera. And they are still doing so without official reprisal.
Although the Syrian press is still highly restricted under Bashar, there is less of the pervasive fear seen under his father's regime. "The people have energy and haven't stopped speaking and being active," Aref Dalila says. "People now have a desire and zeal for change and dialogue."
Because the Bashar government has generally tolerated criticism from media outside its borders, Syrians writing in the pan-Arab press have been able to operate with a modicum of freedom. In an ominous recent development, however, dissident and former political prisoner Riad al-Turk was arrested on September 1, apparently as the result of a talk that he gave at a Damascus salon. Two leading pan-Arab newspapers published Al-Turk's remarks, which constituted his first political appearance after 17 years in prison.
Ali Farzat is one of the Arab world's preeminent cartoonists; he cuts an avuncular figure as he puffs on his cigar in the small apartment-office that houses his new weekly satirical paper, Al-Domari (The Lamplighter). Farzat speaks of his shock when Al-Domari's maiden issue, published in February 2001, sold all its 25,000 copies in a matter of hours. He was forced to rush back to the printer and print a second run, which was gobbled up with similar alacrity.
Al-Domari's 20-plus pages of cartoons and humorous articles put a sarcastic spin on social, political, and cultural issues in Syria. The articles are written in colloquial Syrian Arabic and poke fun at corruption, bureaucracy, quality of life issues, and the occasional unscrupulous official. By Syrian standards, this constitutes highly aggressive journalism.
Like Farzat's cartoons, which make oblique references to sensitive topics such as dictatorship, corruption, and human rights without identifying a particular country or person, Al-Domari's political criticisms are usually indirect. The paper's job, Farzat says, is to monitor the government, Parliament, and society at large. "We're not interested in people but in what people do," he adds. "We're against personal libel."
The paper has already gotten a rise out of readers. Every day, Farzat says, people come to the office with complaints about a certain article or cartoon. Sometimes, even government ministers stop in to vent their displeasure.
But Farzat's incremental approach has frustrated some readers who are eager for serious and hard-hitting journalism. While they acknowledge that the mere existence of a paper like Al-Domari is a significant improvement on the tightly controlled press of just a year earlier, they want more. "Al-Domari is dealing with small issues in a very small way," said Radwan. "Maybe it talks about problems with the streets not being clean or criticizes a minister, but it does not tackle real problems."
Issues unaddressed by Al-Domari include the regime, democracy and human rights, and the actions of high-level officials and the security services. As a result, the paper is no longer difficult to find on Syrian newsstands, according to many local sources.
Even so, Farzat appears to have ruffled some official feathers. By late June, the authorities were already censoring the paper. According to press reports, officials ordered Farzat to cut two articles from a recent issue, along with a cartoon said to defame the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mustapha Miro. "We had obtained permission for a satirical newspaper and suddenly we are forbidden from criticizing," Farzat told Agence France-Presse.
Join the party
For the most part, new pro-regime party newspapers such as Sawt al-Shaab and Al-Wahdawi are devoid of any critical edge. Both are highly deferential to the regime and full of praise for the president, sometimes even more so than official papers.
In May 2001, an offshoot of the Syrian Communist Party launched the newspaper Al-Nour. Although the paper is said to be an improvement on the other party papers (particularly in its cultural pages) it too avoids substantive criticism of the government.
A local human rights organization has launched a magazine, and a new financial newspaper has started publishing. Some applications have been denied, however, and the government is clearly not prepared to tolerate a serious opposition or independent newspaper.
"I don't think Syria will follow the Jordanian, Moroccan, or Egyptian models for the press," said Subhi Hadidi, a Syrian expatriate journalist who writes for the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi. "They will be happy with half-measures."
Across the border
In the meantime, many of the bolder Syrian journalists write for the Lebanese and pan-Arab press. As early as 1999, papers such as the Beirut daily Al-Nahar, with its top-notch weekly cultural supplement, and the influential London daily Al-Hayat, published notably daring dissident opinions in essays or interviews with released political prisoners. An alternative Syrian press of sorts has emerged in these papers, as well as on Al-Jazeera and other regional satellite television channels, where intellectuals and journalists have carried out vigorous debates about democracy, political reform, and human rights.
In recent months, Al-Nahar published a powerful interview with Faraj Bayraqdar, a poet and former political prisoner, who talked about his torture in the notorious Tadmor Prison, located in Syria's eastern desert (see Appendix B for an excerpt). Al-Nahar ran a similarly frank interview with former imprisoned journalist Nizar Nayyouf. Meanwhile, the London-based Arab press has run critical columns by other dissidents and former prisoners (see Appendix C and D for excerpts).
But foreign media cannot replace substantive local news coverage. "We can't publish all of our opinions in [the foreign press]," said Aref Dalila. "They only publish individual pieces and do not deal with issues in a complete way." Moreover, the recent arrests of al-Turk and other dissidents could have a dampening effect on Syrians who write for the pan-Arab press.
Bashar al-Assad's first year in power has been marked by mixed official signals about the future of the press. Despite a series of significant initial steps, a degree of uncertainty now exists among journalists and intellectuals. And while the pace of press reform has slowed, the public's appetite for serious journalism has been whetted.
"You cannot launch a serious dialogue about the main issues in economic, social, political, and cultural life in Syria without the press," said Dalila. "If the situation continues like this it will be very bad...You need the media for reform. It plays a large role. The people want a new media."
For the moment, Syrians will have to settle for Bashar's incremental infitah, while hoping that the Old Guard will not insist on crackdowns that could send Syria back to Hafez-al-Assad-style authoritarianism.
Joel Campagna is CPJ's program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. He spent two weeks in Syria in late April and early May conducting the research for this article. Hani Sabra, CPJ's Middle East research associate, provided research assistance and translations to this report.