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04/11/2010 | Syria Internet law threatens online freedom

A.F.P.

Syria is preparing to vote on an Internet law that has raised concerns about online media in a country which already keeps a tight control of the Web and where access to at least 240 sites is blocked.

 

Journalists say the law, which was approved by the government last week and is awaiting parliament's rubber stamp, could seriously curtail the online media that has enjoyed greater freedom than print.

During the past few years, dozens of news websites have emerged in Syria, and the Internet has become an important source of information given the state's close scrutiny of more traditional media.

Reports on sensitive subjects like a ban in Syrian universities of the niqab, or full-face veil, which received wide coverage on the Internet, are often absent from newspapers.

And even though the Internet is often slow in Syria and websites get shut down for specified periods of time, there is no existing law that regulates online activity.

The new law was "very severe," said Ayman Abdel Nour, director of the website all4syria.org, which is edited from Dubai but has numerous contributors in Syria.

It would allow police to enter editorial offices to arrest journalists and seize their computers, Abdel Nour told AFP, adding the arrested journalists would then be hauled before criminal courts.

His website publishes information on out-of-bounds subjects including the president and his family, the army and religion. Despite being blocked since 2005, his website gets about 33,000 daily hits thanks to software that allows Syrians to get around censorship.

Nidal Maalouf, who runs the pro-government news website Syria-News.com, said that under the new law, online media would be overseen by the information ministry, which would make it harder to criticise the government.

But Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights (SLDHR) chief Abdel Karim Rihawi said online censorship is already getting worse.

"More than 240 websites are blocked in Syria and attempts to control the Internet continue," he said.

In its efforts to stifle online dissent, the government has targeted the websites of Syrian opposition parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish minority groups, and human rights organisations.

But other websites considered politically hostile to the government, and even social networking sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are also proscribed, Rihawi said.

Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders painted a bleak picture of online media freedom in Syria in a July report, describing it as "one of the more repressive countries" in terms of Internet censorship.

"Many bloggers have been harassed by the authorities since the end of 2008 for contributing to online publications," RSF said.

The group mentioned the case of Karim Arbaji, a blogger who was arrested by military intelligence officers in July 2007 and held in pre-trial detention before finally being sentenced to three years in jail in September 2009 for "publishing mendacious information liable to weaken the nation?s morale."

Arbaji was freed in January after representatives of the Christian church in Syria addressed a request to the president, RSF said.

Another blogger, Firas Saad, was imprisoned in April 2008 for writing articles critical of the regime and only released in September, said SLDHR's Rihawi.

Breitbart (Estados Unidos)

 


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