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After the Damascus spring: Syrians search for freedom online.

SHORTLY AFTER I arrived in Damascus last June, Amr Nazir Salem, the minister of telecommunications and technology, told me that champress. net would be "a great site to check out." Champress was a locally produced independent news website--an example, he assured me, of Syria's advances in media freedom. I took his advice as evidence that the site must be government propaganda. But my interest was piqued a few days later, when I attempted to visit it from one of the city's many Internet cafes and found only a blank page.

It didn't make sense. Salem had admitted that the Syrian authorities block websites--namely pro-Israel and hyper-Islamist ones, those run by the illegal Muslim Brotherhood, and those calling for autonomy for Syrian Kurds. But Champress, one of the very sites the government was recommending I visit? It was a small example of the paradoxes that abound in Syria, an authoritarian state whose government, which has long maintained ownership and control over the media, claims now to be intent on spreading information technology to the masses.

The last six years have seen an explosion of Internet use in Syria, with close to I million of the country's 18 million people now online, compared to just 30,000 in 2000. Outside observers say the surge will continue, with Syrian users "projected to exceed 1.7 million by 2009," according to a recent study by the Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group. Damascus writers are already churning out hundreds of blogs in English and Arabic as well as dozens of broader independent news-and-commentary sites like Champress. The websites are run from homes and from more than two dozen cyber-cafes, where it costs about $I to spend an hour online.

The technology is advancing so quickly that it seems impossible for Syrian authorities to maintain their stranglehold on the free flow of local news and ideas. Yet the government's obsession with manipulating the content of independent sites and its apparent desire to extend traditional media restrictions into cyberspace raise the question of whether the country's rulers merely seek to use the Internet as a tool to enhance their own power.

The Syrian segment of the Web is a gauge for whether Bashar al-Assad is genuinely committed to building the "contemporary and progressive" society he described when he ascended to power after the 2000 death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria and its lone political party, the Ba'ath, for 31 years. Some observers are encouraged by the younger Assad's interest in computers and his Western leanings: He is fluent in French and English, and his wife is a British-born woman of Syrian descent who was a Citibank investment banker when he met her while training as an ophthalmologist in London. But is the Internet really opening Syria's public sphere to freer speech? Or is the government simply letting people speak up online as a means of identifying opposition figures and troublemakers? Six years into the reign of Bashar, who turned 41 in September, the gauge is delivering ambiguous readings.

A 'Deal' With the Government

Days after I was unable to access it, champress.net suddenly became available again. It turned out to be a daily aggregation of material from independent Arabic papers across the region, plus a mixture of original editorials and local news. It's among the most popular news sites in Syria; according to its founder, Ali Jamalo, it receives about 30,000 visitors a day. Other popular sites use the same format, including syria-news.com and aljaml.com ("The Camel"). Each appears relatively balanced, though any serious opposition to Assad generally comes not in the form of news stories but as anonymous or pseudonymous comments from readers.

Some of the commenters openly bash the government. Last year a reader angry about government censorship used Champress to urge the country's rulers to "Loosen your hold on peoples' thoughts," adding, "When are we going to talk about freedom and democracy and transparency?" More recently, the summer violence in Israel and Lebanon produced a flood of reader comments with a predictably anti-Israel slant--a position generally shared by Syrians whether or not they back Assad. Support for Hezbollah was also a theme, although it was presented more carefully than the anti-Israel material, with seldom a mention of the militant Lebanese Shiite party's actual name. In a show of solidarity, they instead referred to it as the "resistance."

I decided to phone Jamalo, who agreed to meet me at a cafe in Damascus' upscale Al-Mezza neighborhood, and from the start things felt slightly odd. My taxi had dropped me off in front of the wrong card, and when I phoned Jamalo to tell him, he demanded I stay put. I was taken aback when he suddenly swerved up to the curb in a black Mercedes 600 with tinted windows, the sort of car that seemed more likely to be driven by a secret security agent than by a man who spends his time breaking down barriers to free speech.

After Jamalo took me to a private house on an upscale residential street in Al-Mezza, I told him, through his translator, that I wanted to learn whether and how Champress operates without interference in a place where, until very recently, such media outlets were wholly forbidden. "I have a very careful relationship with the government," he said. "I know what to write. I criticize, but in a good way, in a calm way." When he first launched Champress, he said, he received daily phone calls from Mohsen Bilal, the Syrian minister of information, questioning its "direction."

A rugged sort in his late 40s, Jamalo was a war correspondent for 25 years, having covered Lebanon's civil war of the '80s for Syrian state TV and, subsequently, the first Gulf War and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. (In the latter conflicts, in addition to filing reports for official Syrian television, he helped organize freelance footage from cameramen close to the action into packages sold to CNN, Al Jazeera, and anyone else who would buy.) "I am a journalist," he said, and he certainly carried himself like one during our meeting, burning through a half-pack of Marlboro Lights. After his last stint in Iraq, Jamalo decided he "wanted to do something new."

Lighting another cigarette and leaning back in a large leather chair, he boasted that Champress even carries stories about the Muslim Brotherhood, membership in which carries a death sentence in Syria. "Sometimes I criticize the policy of the government," he said. "My website is the most important political website in Syria."

I asked whether Champress had ever been shut down. "No, no," he said. "We have had no problems until now." I asked what he meant by that, mentioning that I had recently tried to pull the site up and found it not working. Jamalo hesitated for a moment, lighting another cigarette. Then, in a quieter voice, he explained that the site had suddenly been closed for several days early in the summer. Initially, he said, he believed there was a technical problem, and as phone calls poured in from readers wondering what was wrong, that's what he told them. It wasn't until the problem went on for several hours that he phoned Information Minister Bilal. "He told me to wait, and the site would come back up," Jamalo said, adding that Bilal then informed him that a story posted on Champress the day before "had upset several senior government officials." As I formed the words of my next question, Jamalo looked at me and said in English, "I have no comment."

"But what was the story that had angered the officials?" I asked. I needed to know, otherwise how could I write about it? Through the translator, Jamalo said in Arabic, "I now have a deal with the government not to speak about this."

'Pervasive' Web Filtering

Before becoming president, Bashar al-Assad's only formal political role was as head of the exclusive Syrian Computer Society. It came as little surprise, then, that when he took power he spoke of the "importance of spreading education and knowledge and Internet technology." But today Reporters Without Borders ranks Syria as "one of the worst offenders against Internet freedom." The organization's 2006 report said the government "censors opposition and independent news websites, barring access to those that deal with Syrian policy, monitor[ing] online activity to silence dissident voices, and jailing Internet users and bloggers."

The OpenNet Initiative, which monitors government filtration and surveillance of the Internet, says Web filters in Syria are "pervasive" According to the group's profile of the country, "Syria's filtering takes place at the ISP level. Syria targets the websites of Syrian-specific and Arabic news sites that are critical of the government, Kurdish organizations, and foreign-based Syrian opposition parties. Access to the country code top level domain of Israel, '.il,' is also blocked. There is variation in the level of filtering amongst the ISPS."

Salem, the telecommunications and technology minister, acknowledged that the Syrian authorities have developed their own software for monitoring the Web. There's also evidence that security officials hang around the cyber-cafes, blending in and looking busy while watching people. During one of my many cafe visits last summer, a Syrian I was working with discreetly motioned toward a well-dressed, mustached man sitting in a corner, smoking and tapping away on a laptop. "I see him here a lot," my friend said. "I think he's government." The man and I suddenly made eye contact. I looked away, nervously touching my own mustache, and decided it might not be the best idea to approach him and ask him his business.

Beyond rumors that the president is a computer nut (one prominent Syrian intellectual working in the United States told me he "reads computer magazines as his bedtime literature"), the best evidence for his desire to expand Internet use in Syria was the addition of Amr Salem--a senior program manager at Microsoft's U.S. headquarters in Redmond, Washington, from 1998 until 2005--to his cabinet in February 2006. After a cup of strong coffee in his vast air-conditioned office across the street from the Syrian Parliament, Salem, whose wife and children still live in the United States, told me he was in Damascus to use the technology revolution as a vehicle for the reforms Assad publicly promised six years ago.

"Human development is a key goal for this government," he said, adding that "access to information is a key factor in accelerating human development." I agreed and, settling into the cushions on his office couch, probed him about the issue of censorship, mentioning news releases from groups like Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists condemning the jailing of Syrian cyberjournalists.

"Basically," Salem told me, "Syria is currently under attack, we have to admit that, by several powers, and if somebody writes, or publishes or whatever, something that supports the attack, they will be tried." I asked what he makes of the journalist rights organizations that list Assad among the world's leading suppressors of free speech. "It's a stereotype," he said, claiming that Assad does no more than U.S. President George W. Bush when it comes to battling journalists and activists. Such judgments, he said, are made "without taking in the whole context and understanding the dynamics at play and who these people are."

Salem's words rang in my head a few days later when I met Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, who surprised me by saying that "some of the opposition members in Syria publicly portray the arrests of these journalist-activists as actually arrests of just journalists because they know it will make the regime look worse." Thankfully, he doesn't defend the detention of nonviolent activists, but he recognizes that if watchdogs describe the arrestees as "journalists," the government's image falls even lower.

Qurabi also gave me a lengthy list of people jailed by the government for things they put on the Internet, some detained for years simply for writing their thoughts in emails. "In Syria, we do not have any laws regulating the Internet or websites," Qurabi said. He didn't mean that people are free to use the Net as they please. He meant that the limits are constantly shifting with the rulers' subjective whims, so ordinary people are never sure where those limits are.

Mafia-Style Dictator or Likable Modern Guy?

Several Syrian journalists told me media freedom has increased in Syria in recent years, especially on the Internet. But they said it's not clear that there are fewer forbidden topics today; it may just be that the Web has made it harder for the government to regulate speech. "In the last seven years, the margin is wider, but it's riskier because you don't know where the red lines are and you don't know the punishment for what you are writing," said Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus bureau chief for the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat. "The lines are always changing and are now very vague. Being a journalist here, you need to know about the political climate to be able to write your own story. You have to know the limits."

Even veterans like Hamidi, a writer for Al-Hayat for 16 years, can unwittingly cross the line. His credentials have been stripped and returned by the government seven times over the years, and at the start of the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq he was detained for six months for writing that the Syrian government was "preparing itself for war" "The red lines are different from one medium to another," Hamidi said, adding that authorities are most concerned about "internal public opinion."

To begin to understand censorship in Syria, sources inside and outside the government told me, you have to consider the environment within which Assad has ruled. After his father's death in June 2000, media freedom blossomed on the Internet and in new private magazines. Known as the Damascus Spring, the period was initiated by Assad's inaugural address, in which he announced, "There is no doubt that transparency is an important thing."

The new freedoms were crushed when it became clear that the U.S. would enter neighboring Iraq. Assad, apparently fearing for the stability of his regime, swiftly reintroduced the practices of closing magazines and jailing journalists, activists, and opposition figures. After the invasion, the authorities braced for the possibility that Iraq's turmoil could spread into Syria. The clampdown on media and public displays of opposition to the president tightened last year with the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and a subsequent United Nations probe that suggested Syria was to blame.

Despite his public calls for reform, Bashar al-Assad grew up in the confines of his father's Ba'athist system. Even if you believe his rhetoric is sincere, he's surrounded by men who ascended to power under that system. And pro-Assad Syrian nationalism remains very much alive. While it burns hottest among the nation's wealthy elite, public support for the Assad family and its rule is arguably widespread.

An anecdote: One evening last summer, I found myself at a Damascus nightclub whose speakers cranked out such Western pop hits as "Gasolina" by the Puerto Rican pop star Daddy Yankee. Around 3 a.m. a pro-Syria, pro-Assad pop song suddenly blared over the speakers. The tune drew shouts and cheers from the crowd, with some singing along to the Arabic lyrics: "Syria is our country and Al-Assad is our leader."

There are several possible explanations for what I witnessed. Assad may enjoy a far greater degree of popularity among his people than is comfortable for Westerners to admit. Then again, the drunken songs of partiers at a disco serving $6 whiskey shots may not offer the most representative sample of Syrian public opinion. The song may also have been a way for the nightclub's owner to stay open late while avoiding trouble with the authorities.

The ambiguity of the government's stance toward the Internet and toward freedom of the press reflects the generally ambiguous nature of Assad's regime. The young president seems to dance a tight rope between appeasing hard-line allies of his father in Syria's vast security apparatus and permitting technology such as the World Wide Web to undermine the government's control of speech and opinion.

"Bashar is not simply a Ba'athist thug," argues Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian author who has lived in the Washington, D.C., area since last year, when, he says, he left Syria after being threatened for criticizing the regime in print. "He is a member of a family that has imposed itself on the country and that conducts policy for its own purposes." According to Abdulhamid, who now voices his opinions on the English-language blog amarji.blogspot.com, these circumstances mean that the "mafias of the ruling elite." try to co-opt anyone pushing for reform in Syria. "We're talking about the Internet, but the same rules apply for any reformers," he said. "Either you get neutralized, you get destroyed, or you get sucked into the game." Assad, Abdulhamid added, "is part of the game."

The Assad family's determination to hold onto power helps explain the brevity of the Damascus Spring. But the expanding availability of the Internet has made it impossible for the government to completely control information in the way it did in the pre-Internet age. Instead, authorities play a sort of cat-and-mouse game with Web freedoms, cracking down at times, easing up at others. The result is a culture of fear among Syrian Web surfers that has persisted since the early days of Syrian Internet access--in 2000 and 2001, as Bashar al-Assad was coming to power--when there were only a few thousand people online and rumors swirled about government reprisals against ordinary citizens who knowingly or unknowingly emailed "offensive" messages to each other.

One notorious incident involved May Mamar Bashi, who was jailed for five months in 2001 for forwarding to a friend a cartoon that showed Bashar al-Assad sodomizing Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Although that was five years ago, Bashi, who now runs the ornate Belt Mamlouka boutique hotel in Damascus' maze-like Old City, clammed up when I asked her about the incident. "Believe it or not," she said, "I really want to stay in Syria, so I prefer not to talk about this."

Bashi told me the government's attitude toward the Web has changed significantly in recent years. "There's a lot of freedom in Syria now," she said. "Five years ago we were barely having Internet at all in Syria, which is not the case any more." Bashi reasoned that surveillance of Syrians has decreased significantly as the number of Internet users has gone up. "They cannot watch every little thing," she said.

Younger Web surfers are less sure. Amr Faham, one of the multitudes who frequent cyber-cafes, told me he avoids putting anything overtly political on his two blogs--amrfaham.blogspot.com, which deals with his personal life, and syrianhiking.blogspot.com, about his experiences as an outdoorsman. Faham, 25, regularly gives tours and even offers his couch to foreigners he meets online. But over a bowl of fool (a creamy and delightful local bean dish) in a Damascus care, he said in a low voice that even though he blogs in English and doesn't write about issues that would be censored, he still worries. "Sometimes you talk about whatever you want, and suddenly you disappear," he explained. "We don't know the limits."

In the months since then, Faham has been more willing to criticize the government on his personal blog. On October 10, he wrote of how he had attempted to load the site for three days, only to find a "forbidden" sign. When he phoned the ISP that he uses, Faham wrote, an employee told him that "Syrian 'intelligence'" had ordered them to block every page on blogspot.com. In his post, titled "Forbidden," Faham openly challenged the government: "Will it take years till someone from them discover that it's also impossible to block the blogs as hundreds of free blogging services are born each few months? Or to find out that not all bloggers should be considered 'dangerous'? So hey you, there in your dark room, making people, whether deliberately or accidentally, your favorite game; give me back my personal free space!"

What Good Is a Window If You're Blind?

The uncertainty has not stopped a growing number of Syrians, both supporters and detractors of the government, from making the Web an unprecedented haven for public discourse on news in general and repression in particular. "I think the whole Internet came to Syria because they can't stop it and they want to use it to promote the new era," said Maan Abdul-Salam, a pro-democracy dissident in Damascus whose women's rights site, Thara (thara-sy.org/ English/arabic/index.php), has operated without interference.

Authorities tolerate Thara's exposure of stories that might never have seen light 10 years ago. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the site carried a feature on Iraqi girls, some as young as 12, fleeing to Damascus to work in the city's growing prostitution trade. International media outlets, including the cable channel Al Jazeera, picked up the story, as did Champress and syria-news.com. A subsequent Thara feature detailed the circumstances of several female political prisoners. "Again, they didn't do anything," Abdul-Salam said. "They didn't shut it down."

But while the site has been allowed to push state limits on freedom, a separate operation that Abdul-Salam runs--a feminist literature distribution group called Etana Press--has not. Etana initially operated with impunity, even holding a human rights conference in November 2005 at Damascus University. Shortly afterward, however, it helped circulate a small number of copies of the controversial book Let the Veil be Removed, by the Iranian writer Shahdarut Javan. In an illustration of the Internet's role in Syria, Abdul-Salam said he learned by reading a news posting on Champress that Syrian Islamists angry about the book's distribution had complained to the security authorities. As a result, Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Al-Otari ordered Abdul-Salam to keep quiet about the book and to stop circulating it.

The Champress post, in January 2006, generated a flood of reader feedback on both the subject of the veil and the issue of whether Abdul-Salam and Etana were being wrongly restrained by the government. One anonymous reader said, "Now where do you think Mr. Otari that you live! We're going to get the novel from the internet. Or are you going to also forbid internet." Another commenter, posting under the name "a polemic reader," wrote: "Get free of the forbidding complex. Praise be to God, the intellectual forbidding policy can never be changed!!! Leave readers to decide what's accepted and what's rejected. Why are you dealing with people as if they are sheep?"

At the end of our meeting, I asked Abdul-Salam if he feels the Internet is moving Syria toward a more open society, given that his online activism has been tolerated by the authorities while his activism beyond the Internet has not. He thought about the question for some time, then responded, "The Internet is really important, but it doesn't make any change in the end, because the hand of security is still so strong. People can get information now, but they can't do anything with the information. Maybe you have a window on the world, but you don't have a window on what's going on inside, and that makes you blind."

Guy Taylor (guyjtaylor@yahoo.com), a D.C.-based freelance journalist, has received an International Reporting Award from the Stanley Foundation and a reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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Date:Feb 1, 2007
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