Syrian media reform: a glass half full or half empty?

Special to The Daily Star

The Syrian media have not shown any serious signs of change since the Baath Party assumed power in a 1963 coup. Indeed, Syria’s media sector is one of the most tightly controlled in the Arab world. Most publications are state-owned, and rarely express nonconformist opinions. The coming to power of young President Bashar Assad in 2000 raised hopes that the regime would loosen the reigns significantly. But after a brief period of decompression in 2001 known as the “Damascus spring,” Assad enacted a publications law that consolidated government control; he allowed the licensing of just one “independent” political magazine, owned by the son of the minister of defense; and he cracked down hard on dissent.

Despite the overall gloomy picture, however, in recent months there have been indications that reform-minded members of the regime are willing to allow the voicing of limited dissent in state-owned outlets, particularly in the print media.

The new “policy” – or, to be more exact, attitude – appears to be an extension of the regime’s tolerance of Internet-based initiatives launched by opposition figures based in Syria and in exile. The initiatives, begun in the past two years, offer a platform for dialogue among reformers inside and outside the regime. For example, Ayman Abdelnour, an engineer with ties to Assad, founded an e-mail service [www.all4syria.org] known as “Kulluna Shurakaa,” or “All of Us Are Partners [in the homeland].” Although the Syrian authorities blocked the Web site earlier this year, Abdelnour continues to disseminate an electronic bulletin featuring articles by reformers of diverse political orientations, including, on occasion, government officials.

Another such site is the Tharwa Project [www.tharwaproject.com], of which I am the coordinator, an electronic platform that aims to shed light on the concerns and aspirations of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

The mostly calm and rational nature of this electronic dialogue, coupled with the growing realization by relatively progressive members of the regime that political reforms can help deflect external pressures (especially those emanating from the Bush administration), seem to have encouraged Assad and his advisers to contemplate bolder changes in the media sector.

For this reason, it seems, the president appointed several reform-minded ministers in his October 2004 cabinet reshuffle. The new interior minister, retired general Ghazi Kanaan, quickly pronounced the Syrian press “unreadable” and called for criticism of government performance to be expressed in the state-owned media. The task of modernizing the state media falls to the new information minister, Mahdi Dakhlallah, himself a journalist and the former editor of Al-Baath, the Baath Party’s official newspaper. In his last editorials before assuming his ministerial post, Dakhlallah questioned the need for continuing the state of emergency in place since 1963, and called for the adoption of serious democratic reforms, contending that there was no basic incompatibility between Baath ideology and democracy. Since his appointment, Dakhlallah has supervised the restructuring of several state-owned media institutions with an eye toward making them more professional.

In the meantime, state-owned newspapers have published articles by well-known dissidents. Of particular note was a piece by Hakam al-Baba in the daily Tishreen that criticized the continuous harassment of dissident journalists by the country’s numerous security apparatuses. Baba cited his own experiences, and named Dakhallah personally as having instigated one such round of detention and questioning when he was editor of Al-Baath. The article marked the first time since the Baath came to power that the role of Syria’s security apparatus had come under such public scrutiny.

Yet, a genuine media “glasnost” requires more than these haphazard and anecdotal gestures, no matter how brave or promising they might seem. Without the state’s clear and public commitment to open up the media sector, to permit truly independent newspapers and other outlets, and to cease harassing journalists and activists, such informal moves will never acquire the necessary credibility among the country’s dissidents; nor for that matter among international observers, who continue to denounce Syria’s record on freedom of expression. Furthermore, the Syrian regime can easily reverse the trend at any moment.

For their part, Syrian dissidents have yet to take full advantage of the small but significant new freedoms allowed in state-owned outlets. Writing articles that touch upon taboo issues is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Activists should offer concrete proposals, programs and demands to facilitate the reform process and to build a grassroots constituency for democratic change – something that does not yet exist in Syria, at least not in an organized sense.

For as we know, freedom of the press represents the first frontier of any genuine democratization process, because, once instituted, it allows for monitoring government performance and for holding regimes accountable to the people. Thus, if Syrian reformers fail to test the boundaries of these new freedoms, however scant or fleeting, how can they assess the regime’s seriousness or push it to undertake real reform?

Ammar Abdulhamid was, last year, a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He is a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in Damascus, and is the coordinator of the Tharwa Project, an initiative that seeks to raise awareness of the living conditions of minority groups in the Middle East. This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin Vol. 2, issue 11 (December 2004) www.CarnegieEndowment.org/ArabReform (c) 2004, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace