Censorship in cyberspace

Syrians struggle for their right to write, with Facebook falling victim in the battle.


Media freedoms continue to be a pressing issue across the Middle East [AP] 

Facebook has been criticised as a threat to productivity by many bosses angered by their workers being distracted by the hugely successful social networking website.

But in Syria, the government sees it as a threat to national security.

The government blocked access to Facebook in November for the estimated 28,700 members based in the country, where 1.5 million people use the internet.

Many say the ban was motivated by the “infiltration of Israelis” carrying out a spam campaign hostile to the government.

But Walid Saffour, director of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, says it is the growth of “virtual civil societies” that concerns the authorities.

He told Al Jazeera that Facebook was banned because “it provided a platform for the criticism of the government” within Syrian society.

Less than one per cent of internet users in Syria have a Facebook account, so why was there a concerted effort to stop the activities of such a small fraction of the country’s online population?

“There are no independent institutions in Syria – whether social, cultural or political,” says Saffour.
“Syrians are now trying to represent themselves – and they were doing that through Facebook. Those who cannot be activists in the ‘real’ Syria, can be one in a virtual Syria.”

The government has declined to comment on the ban.

‘Damascus spring’

Facebook is one of more than 100 websites blocked in the country, and this latest ban draws attention to the growing control of cyberspace on the part of the authorities.

Bashar al-Assad, the president, was the head of the Syrian Computer Society before coming to power in 2000. In the early years of his term, he promised wide-ranging political and social reforms in the country, labelled the Damascus Spring.

But amid the recent arrests of scores of political activists in the country, the government has been criticised for failing to fulfil its promises.

Daniel Ashkar, an internet publisher in Damascus, told Al Jazeera that the fight against the Facebook ban is the latest in a resurgent battle against censorship.

According to Ashkar, many websites publishing the “politicised views” of Syrians are shut down. 

Ashkar is one of hundreds of media professionals in the country waiting for a law to be passed that is expected to include regulations on the use of electronic media. According to the government, it promises a “real and democratic opportunity for Syrians”.

He says he has been waiting for more than a year, but in the absence of the long-anticipated legislation a fresh government body has been created.

This body – the ministry of telecommunications and technology – issued a controversial “decision” concerning online content in the first week of its operation.

Joining the dots

“Their intention is clear – we want the names of those who speak against us, and we want the website owners to be our intelligence collectors”

In a statement issued in July, the ministry asked the owners of Syrian websites to exercise “accuracy and objectivity”, and to post the names of writers and those who post comments “in a clear and detailed manner”.

Ashkar says: “It is an attempt to restrict the freedoms of journalists and ordinary people.”

He also said that the government’s demand that writers’ real names be posted will “make readers refrain from expressing their opinions about any issue, and their opinion will therefore be kept absent, and they will desert the Syrian websites”.

The ministry justified its decision by saying that some unattributed articles and commentaries include “lies and expressions that run counter to the ethics of speech and annoys others, which make them publicly committed crimes of defamation and [a] violation of public morals”.

Al Jazeera repeatedly requested an interview with Amr Salem, the minister for telecommunications who heads the ministry. He declined.

Freedom to think

George Kadar, the managing editor of Kulluna Shuraka (We Are All Partners), an electronic newsletter, points out that specific government officials were criticised on websites in the country, and this was likely to have prompted the decision on naming. However, the naming stipulation cannot be imposed on Facebook, hence the outright ban.

“Employees working in the ministry of culture and the ministry of information were criticised for many domestic policies. For example, residents were angry over the demolition of some areas in Damascus, which were subject to debate as to whether they were of historical value.

“They were so angry at what was being said about them, they demanded to find out the authors of the comments.”

Salem had told the As-Safir newspaper in July that his cabinet had “received many complaints, related to commentaries … therefore, the decision was made to place internet publishing within the framework of new regulations – we do not have to wait until a new media law is issued”.

The author of the blog Decentering Damascus, who goes by the pseudonym Golaniya, is unconvinced that the ministry’s decision will control online publishing.

“I think the intention – protecting the nation ‘against spreading lies about the country and government’ is not sincere. Their intention is clear – we want the names of those who speak against us, and we want the website owners to be our intelligence collectors.”

Golaniya tells Al Jazeera that Facebook’s exclusion from Syrian cyberspace reflects “Damascus’ inability to understand that the people are able to form opinions on their own”.

“What bothers me is that we are not treated as peers with the government, as if we cannot rightly judge what’s good and what’s bad for us … it is not only about censoring thoughts and freedom of speech but we people, Syrian people, are considered by our government as inferior minds who cannot build a reasonable judgment if given freedom.”

Facebook has more than 55 million active users [GALLO/GETTY]

Source: Al Jazeera