Syria: Porn OK, politics not

July 15, 2007


Pornography from a Syrian website
Syria has stepped up its widespread censorship of the Internet, blocking access to a string of websites critical of the regime, including some run by leading dailies, a human rights group said.

Political and pornographic censorship is commonplace in most Arab countries, where ignorance is the perceived bliss.

Many Syrians hoped that Bashar al-Asad, who succeeded his father as president in July 2000, would bring a new era of openness to Syria and to the Syrian Internet. In his inauguration speech, he spoke of the need for "creative thinking," "the desperate need for constructive criticism," "transparency," and "democracy.

Today, the Syrian government relies on a host of repressive laws and extralegal measures to suppress Syrians' right to access and disseminate information freely online. It censors the Internet-as it does all media-with a free hand. It monitors and censors written and electronic correspondence. The government has detained people for expressing their opinions or reporting information online, and even for forwarding political jokes by email. Syrian bloggers and human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that plainclothes security officers maintain a close watch over Internet cafés.

"The Internet is the only way for intellectuals to meet and share ideas in Syria today." - Aktham Na`issa, president of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria.

In December 2000, not long after the Syrian government first allowed email, the wife of a prominent Syrian businessman received an email containing a cartoon showing a donkey with President Bashar al-Asad's head mounting another donkey with Lebanese Prime Minister Emile Lahoud's head. The woman, a resident of Damascus, forwarded the message to her friends. After one of the recipients informed on her, Syrian authorities arrested and detained her without charge for nine months in what one writer described as "deliberately humiliating conditions."

Sites blocked by firewalls within Syria include the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East) and the Beirut newspaper Al-Mustaqbal (The Future) run by the family of slain Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, the National organization for Human Rights in Syria said.

E-mail provider Hotmail has also been blocked since July 17 last year, the watchdog added.

"Freedom of the Internet is regressing in Syria after the authorities blocked access to a string of independent websites," the group complained.

In November 2005, media watchdog Reporters without Borders named Syria as one of 15 enemies of the Internet around the world.

Syria is among the most repressive countries in the world with regard to freedom of expression and information. Criticisms of the president and reports on the problems of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria remain particularly sensitive areas. Human rights organizations have reported exhaustively on political arrests and detentions.

With a literacy rate of 80 percent, Syria's main barrier to Internet access lies with its affordability. Only 4.2 percent of the population own personal computers, with just 1 percent of Syrians subscribing to Internet services. The proliferation of Internet cafés has helped raise the Internet penetration rate to approximately 6 percent, but many Syrians still find the cost of these cafés prohibitive.

In recent years, the government has endeavored to expand Internet access by installing hardware and telecommunications capabilities in schools, by subsidizing the cost of personal computers, and, most recently, by fostering competition among Internet service providers (ISPs).

There are four ISPs that are neither owned nor funded by the government. Still, the two government-affiliated ISPs - Syria Telecommunication Establishment (STE) and SCS-net (now Aloola) - continue to occupy the majority of the market. Aya, one of the privately owned ISPs, has close ties to the government.

In addition to maintaining regulatory control over ISPs, the Syrian government imposes financial and technical constraints on Internet users. Syrian Internet subscribers wishing to use ports other than port 80-the port most often used for Web browsing - must apply for a special service and pay a small monthly fee. Aya and other ISPs offer plans that allow users to access the Internet with a fixed IP address, which is necessary for hosting sites; to use Virtual Private Networks; and to bypass the ISP's proxy server. They may also pay for a special plan that allows them to open otherwise blocked ports, such as those used for Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video chat.

Syrian Internet users said they also used other means to get around the controls the Syrian government has placed on the Internet. At many Internet cafés, customers can request to use "the Lebanese server"-that is, a connection via a long-distance phone call to a Lebanese ISP not subject to Syria's Internet restrictions-for no extra charge. Indeed, Syrians had connected through Lebanese and Jordanian ISPs before the government officially allowed the Internet into the country. If caught, those connecting through ISPs in neighboring countries face fines and the possibility of their phone lines being cut, but the practice is reportedly common nonetheless.

"What I want to say to you, my friend.is that you and your friends are being watched constantly. They're watching you as you walk in the street and in your daily life. They're watching you as you talk on your home phone, on your mobile, and on the Internet. Don't be too surprised if they're watching you in your sleep, in your dreams, and in your silence. Don't be surprised if they've come into your bed at night." - E-mail from an anyonymous Syrian human rights activist in 2005 Contradicting Constitution

The Constitution of the Arab Republic of Syria affords every citizen "the right to freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression," while also guaranteeing "the freedom of the press, of printing, and publication in accordance with the law." In actuality, these freedoms are limited by other legislative provisions. Article 4.b of the 1963 Emergency Law authorizes the government to monitor all publications and communications. That law also allows the government to arrest those who commit "crimes which constitute an overall hazard" or other vaguely defined offenses.

Two Kurdish Web sites, tirej.net and amude.net, were blocked, as was the Web site of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon (freelebanon.org), which campaigns for an end to Syrian influence in Lebanese politics. The Arabic and English-language sites of the Reform Party of Syria were filtered, along with the Web sites of the Hizb al-Tahrir (Liberation Party) - an Islamist group that seeks to restore the Caliphate and that remains banned in many countries.

ONI's tests found that 115 Syrian blogs hosted on Google's popular blogging engine, blogspot.com, were blocked, strongly suggesting that the ISP had blocked access to all blogs hosted on this service, including many apolitical blogs. Freesyria.wordpress.com, a blog created to campaign for the release of Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian journalist imprisoned for his writings, was also blocked.

In the past, Syria has reportedly filtered access to popular e-mail sites. ONI testing found www.hotmail.com to be blocked, along with two, relatively small Web-based e-mail sites, address.com and netaddress.com. None of the Arabic-language e-mail sites ONI tested were blocked, though the Arabic-language hosting site www.khayma.com was.

Though most foreign news sites were accessible, Web sites of some important Arabic newspapers and news portals were found to be blocked. Examples include the pan Arab, London-based, Arabic-language newspapers, Al-Quds al-Arabi (www.al-quds.co.uk) and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, (www.asharqalawsat.com), the news portal elaph.com, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah (www.alseyassah.com), the U.S.-based Web site of the Arab Times (www.arabtimes.com), and the Islamically oriented news and information portal Islam Online (islamonline.net)These publications frequently run articles critical of the Syrian government.

Web sites of human rights organizations were generally available. Sites associated with the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) marked an important exception; all URLs on the www.shrc.org.uk domain were found blocked in this round of testing. As indicated above, some blogs that criticize the human rights record of Syria were also blocked.

Technology website wired.com is also blocked, for reasons beyond comprehension.

Only three Web sites tested with pornographic content were blocked: playboy.com, sex.com, and netarabic.com/vb (this last is a message board with pornographic content).

Web sites that focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered issues were generally available.

While Lebanon's internet connectivity leaves much to be desired, at least we have the privilege to free information - a right that every Arab citizen should have.

Sources: OpenNet, Human Rights Watch, Ya Libnan, The Age


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