"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
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
"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
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
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
Web sites that focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered issues were
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
Sources: OpenNet, Human Rights Watch, Ya Libnan, The Age