Private media breaks taboos, but restrictions remain

The chief of Syria’s first private television channel has a simple formula for the effect his ground-breaking series has had on the country’s tightly-controlled media.

“Stagnant water needs a stone to move it,” said Mohammad Akram Jundi, chairman of Sham TV, Syria’s first independent private satellite channel, whose “Barrier of Silence” series – shown on local television and across the Arab world in October – focused on the travails of HIV/AIDS patients in Damascus. “Drama can be that stone.”

In a country where social taboos – such as HIV/AIDS – are also red lines that the media rarely, if ever, crosses, the series was a significant step toward the liberalisation of restrictive media restrictions.

Press law restricts journalists

Although private channels such as Sham TV have made progress, analysts say fundamental media freedoms remain impossible because a decades-old Publishing Law, currently being re-drafted, remains coupled to the country’s 43-year-old emergency laws.

“The first real concern with the new Publishing Law must be to define national security,” said Marwan Kabbalan, political analyst and Professor of Media Studies at Damascus University. “Now they say everything is permissible, except [issues of] ‘national security’. But they still haven’t defined the meaning of ‘national security’.”

The emergency laws allow for the trial in military courts for defendants accused of breaching national security, a process which human rights group say strips citizens of their constitutional rights.

Early in March, Sha'aban Abboud, Damascus correspondent for Lebanese newspaper An Nahar, was charged with publishing “false information harmful to national security" after reporting on Syria’s intelligence services. Abboud now awaits trial in a military court where, if found guilty, he faces up to three years in prison.

Later the same month, journalist Ali Abdullah was detained a day after writing an article for a United Arab Emirates-based newspaper critical of the government response to the opposition activities of exiled former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam. Abdullah remains in detention, without charge, at an undisclosed location.

Foreign journalists face constraints

A number of foreign journalists seeking to work in Damascus have also been subject to increased restriction in recent months, including delayed or refused visa applications.

The more stringent restrictions follow the appointment of former Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara to the vice-presidency. In his new capacity, al-Shara is responsible for “executing foreign and media policy under the directions of the president”, according to official news agency SANA.

In an interview with IRIN, Deputy Information Minister Taleb Kadi Amin said his ministry sought to encourage foreign journalists to work in Syria. “There’s nothing to prevent foreign journalists from entering Syria,” said Amin, seen as a key reformer within the ruling Ba’ath Party. “Any reporter who asks for a visa through the information ministry or the Syrian embassy in their country will be granted the visa in a very short space of time.”

The ministry, however, reserved the right to delay granting visas to those journalists deemed “completely negative and non-objective” and who consistently report stories that “hurt Syria”, said Amin.

A state monopoly

Aside from political restrictions, Syria’s media sector also faces challenges in training staff and developing as a competitive industry.

The state boasts four daily newspapers, as well as an official news agency, from which many of the state papers print reports verbatim. Of these, Al Thawra enjoys the largest distribution, with 60,000 copies printed every day. Syrian Television and Radio, meanwhile, which represents the largest state-owned media organisation, employs some 4,000 people and runs two terrestrial television channels, a satellite channel and a radio station.

The private print-media sector, meanwhile, consists mostly of magazines. According to statistics from the Ministry of Information, there are currently 146 private magazines published in Syria. While Sham TV represents the only private Syrian satellite channel, there are also a modest handful of professional news websites, such as SyriaNews and All4Syria, devoted to current events.

Despite the dominance of the public media sector, however, Kabbalan believes it suffers from a lack of both expertise and technology. “We have no modern technology,” he said. “There are no computers in most of the country’s media organisations, and – if there are – they’re just for prestige.”

Last October, a coalition of six heads of private media organisations, frustrated by the lack of media reform, established the Syrian Private Press Team (SPPT) to lobby the government for change. In recent statements to the SPPT and others, however, newly appointed Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal said that private media should adhere to "a tradition of professionalism" in the interest of “public opinion and the homeland” and that journalists should “correct mistakes some foreign media and TV stations convey about Syria”.

Media city

In a show of support for private media, the information ministry announced last month the creation of Syria’s first “Media City”, in hopes of attracting private media companies, including websites, newspapers, magazines and satellite channels.

The city will operate under economically liberal free-zone laws, allowing approved companies to purchase and import any media equipment they require free of customs duties; transfer revenue freely in and out of the country; and enjoy various tax exemptions. “We need to attract private media in order to express what Syria really is,” said Adnan Suleiman, head of the Free Zones Directorate, which will administer Media City. “We need the private sector to boost the image of Syrian society and build an emerging industry.”

The city, which will be open only to Syrian nationals for the first five years of its existence, is scheduled to open by the end of August.

Despite a generous raft of incentives, however, companies in Media City will also be required to pay up to 22 percent of their advertising revenue to the state-run Arab Advertising Organisation, while distribution inside Syria will remain in the hands of a single state distribution agency that charges a 40-percent commission on all publications sold. Some heads of private publications say such heavy burdens could cripple their business prospects.

Jundi – whose company has obtained a provisional three-month license to broadcast from Syria but which continues to broadcast from Dubai – said he welcomed the move, but questioned the government’s preparedness. “It’s a big idea, but we have to wait for sufficient infrastructure before we decide to move,” Jundi said. “I think they’ll need at least two years before having [infrastructure] in place.”

Despite obstacles, however, some international experts predict a bright future for Syria’s media industry. “The very fact that we’re here today, having this debate, is a measure of how far Syrian authorities have come,” said Alan Booth, Controller of Marketing at the BBC World Service, in Damascus. “Once you’ve embarked on the journey of opening up the media, you can never go back.”