Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2011
Issue No. 1036
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Unblocked but not unmonitored

Facebook access was unblocked in Syria earlier this week, but many users believe this will not necessarily ease Internet access in the country, reports Bassel Oudat from Damascus

Syria announced last week that it was unblocking access to Internet social-networking sites like Facebook, YouTube and blogspot after years of censorship, with sources close to the regime quoting Syrian officials as saying that the blocks had been removed "out of respect for Syrian young people" who had countered a campaign on Facebook calling for strikes and protests in Syria similar to those that have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt.

The censorship was being eased, the sources said, "because the government is confident that Syrian young people are aware of foreign plots" to destabilise the country and "are capable of confronting such campaigns in the future". The sources denied that the Syrian authorities had unblocked the sites as a result of protests underway in other Arab states.

While Syrian users have long been able to circumvent blocks on many of the censored sites, the blocks have been in place since 2007 when the Syrian authorities decided to block hundreds of sites on the grounds that they endangered the country's security, saying that Israel was using the sites to recruit agents inside Syria.

However, in addition to this official reason, the authorities in Syria were also thought to be disturbed by pages created by Syrian activists and intellectuals hostile to the regime. These included pages with titles like "An End to Capital Punishment in Syria", "Freedom for Lawyer Anwar Al-Bonni", "Freedom of the Media," "Democratic Transformation", "No to the Block on Websites in Syria", and many others.

Syrian young people from across the political spectrum have expressed their joy at the official end of the ban, but many of the country's intellectuals and opposition supporters have questioned the significance of the decision, saying that it is unlikely to affect the strict censorship of the Internet in Syria.

Young people using Facebook are likely to be closely monitored by the regime, and the lifting of the ban may thus be intended to entrap them. Syrian users should continue using proxy sites when accessing social-networking sites like those they had used before the ban was lifted, as these are more difficult to monitor, opposition sources said.

"I doubt that the authorities will ease their grip or their censorship of the Internet," Omar Qarba, head of the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "On the contrary, every day more sites are added to the list of those that are banned, and everybody knows that there are more important things than unblocking access to Facebook."

"This step can be construed as a move by the government to moderate what is already taking place on Facebook and to be able to go through what is being published there for its own purposes. The use of proxy sites has not allowed it to monitor what is being posted up to now," Qarba said.

Over recent years, Syrians have become used to the authorities blocking access to Internet sites, especially ones related to opposition parties or ones that criticise the government or regime. As a result, local and international human rights groups have criticised Syria for refusing to allow the free flow of information, accusing Damascus of controlling information outlets in order to control what is available to the population.

The international journalism organisation Reporters without Borders has stated that the Internet in Syria is rarely available for those wanting to criticise the regime or express their ideas, describing Syria as "the largest prison for e-violators in the Middle East" and "an enemy of the Internet" along with China and Turkmenistan.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly called on the Syrian regime in recent years to stop its policy of arresting activists posting comments online or surfing banned websites.

In 2009, the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression accused the authorities of trying to "tame" the Internet. The regime's policies aimed to "destroy the margin of freedom provided by the electronic media," the Centre said, adding that while the regime was not averse to expanding the country's Internet users for economic reasons, its security apparatus blocked Websites and pursued those found posting oppositional views.

Three weeks after the Centre had posted its comments, the Syrian authorities blocked access to the centre's website, shut down its offices in Damascus and threatened to arrest staff if they continued their activities.

The number of sites currently blocked by the Syrian regime is estimated by some media analysts to run to nearly 300 mostly political, current affairs or human rights sites. Human rights sources in Syria say that some 500 people have been arrested over the past decade in the country because of their Internet activity or comments made on blocked sites.

It has not been only networking sites like Facebook that have been banned. The sites of Arab newspapers such as Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Asharq Al-Awsat and the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyasa are also blocked.

News sites such as Shafaf Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Elaf, Akhbar Al-Sharq and Al-Hiwar Al-Motamaden are also banned, alongside the sites of NGOs, human rights groups, opposition parties, Islamist sites, and even the Arabic website of Wikipedia, though the ban on this is believed to have been lifted, together with those on the sites of Amazon and Twitter.

As a result of such policies, Syrians have been prevented from accessing important sources of information, though they have been able to use the Internet to send e-mail and for other purposes. Some years ago, the regime also blocked access to the Hotmail and Yahoo sites for several weeks, later unblocking the sites perhaps because these are among the largest e-mail providers.

Monitoring of the Internet in Syria has also gone further than blocking websites, with the regime routinely monitoring e-mails and anyone posting material online. Criticisms of the regime are penalised, and Syrian Internet cafés are obliged to register the personal details of their customers, keeping a record of Internet use that is then handed to the security apparatus.

It is illegal in Syria to post material anonymously online, a tactic used by activists to escape the watchful eye of the security apparatus. Web-hosting services are instructed to ensure that the names of anyone posting to sites are recorded, with failure to do so leading to the sites being closed down.

According to sources from Syrian Internet providers, the latter are given lists of blocked sites by the authorities and are obliged to carry out their directives. In 2008, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, three of the world's largest IT and Internet-related companies, listed Syria, Iran, China, Vietnam and Burma as being particularly guilty of restricting Internet freedom.

According to many Syrians, it is the country's emergency law, in force since 1963, that has allowed the government to control the Internet in Syria as it wishes, keeping a tight grip on this powerful form of expression.

Syrian opposition sources complain that the efforts made to block the Internet "put a heavy strain on the country's budget," adding that the money should be spent instead on "creating a more genuine media environment and establishing a democratic atmosphere built on dialogue and respect for the views of others."

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