Digital media

According to the latest available statistics, there are more than 5.5 million Internet users in Syria (Internet Live Stats, July 2016), with a penetration of 29.6 percent  of the population. 

In 1994, after the sudden death of his older brother Basel, Bashar al-Asad came back from London to become the future successor of his father Hafez. In the same year, he founded Al-Jam‘iyya al-‘ilmiyya al-ma‘lumatiyya al-suriyya ( Syrian Computer Society -SCS, ) with the declared aim to “diffuse the computer culture in Syria.” Six years later, when Bashar took the reins of power after the death of Hafez al-Asad, there were only around 7,000 computers connected to the Internet in the country, with all portals connected to a single government-run server that kept track of every password. Syrian authorities restricted licenses to institutions and a few professors and business owners, while Internet cafés were not permitted. In 2010, prior to the outburst of the revolt, the country had almost four million Internet users (17.7 percent  of the population), but only 861,000 subscribers, according to the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE). The majority of Syrians used to access the Internet from cafés and even satellite Internet was forbidden and required a security license. The Syrian authorities in fact transformed their Internet into an intranet by preventing access to a long list of websites. In 2009, at least 150 websites remain blocked, including the majority of sites run by ethnic minorities or political movements perceived to be opposed to the authorities in Damascus. Social networking sites including Facebook and YouTube remain blocked, but Syrians have become adept at using proxy servers to circumvent the ban. At this regard, Amjad Bajazi - author of a study titled Syria's Cyber Wars points out that many news services and youth magazines have started on Facebook. These journals are specialised in providing news on Syria and they have a larger margin of freedom than printed magazines. He quotes journalist and analyst Wael Sawah about the important role played by new media in “campaigns, as several were launched in 2009 by civil society actors and people eager for change simultaneously. […] A number of smaller campaigns have been taking place since 2006, benefitting from the latest Internet and telecommunications technology. […] All these campaigns shared certain features: they were all apolitical; they embraced different groups from Syrian society; and they relied on new tools such as blogs, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter.” At the end of 2009 a Facebook page of the Jamal al-Atasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue appeared on Facebook after it had been physically closed in 2005. “Our goal is simple,” said Suhayr al-Atassi, the forum’s president. “We want to pursue the dialogue that had been interrupted, in order to reach a deeper understanding of our causes and find solutions together.” In the same days, Syrian authorities arrested blogger and high school student Tal al-Malluhi after she published poems and articles commiserating Palestinian refugees. Some weeks before, in September 2009, blogger Karim Arbaji was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of spreading “false information that can weaken national sentiment.” Arbaji was the moderator of Akhawia.net, a popular online youth forum that contained criticisms of the government. 

In more recent times, especially after 2011, Internet websites are highly accessible to a large sector of the Syrian public. Trend-wise, websites diverge from the patterns seen in non-digital news media. Instead of one or two dominant news websites, there is a balanced mix of pro-government and opposition sources. One of the most interesting findings here relates to the second position occupied by Yawmiyyat Qadhifat Hawun (The Mortar Diaries). Compared to SANA (number one on the list), it is a site for which a clear affiliation cannot be determined, documenting events of the conflict without explicitly taking sides and dealing mainly with daily matters that relate to the urgent and immediate needs of Syrians. Overall, opposition websites still have a limited weight. Three are present among the most-followed sites. This tendency might be due to the total censorship imposed by the government on all opposition websites and on those that in someway sympathise with their stances. This means that visitors inside Syria can only access these websites using proxy servers, but, as their traffic is routed through IP addresses in a second country, such visitors’ access is not registered as coming from Syria. In general, the Internet as a source of information is seen less trustworthy than other forms of traditional media. However, few Syrians use all kinds of online advanced verification tools to check information. The explanation for this digital distrust can be twofold: Online media are a relatively new or unfamiliar technology for a large part of the audience; or the online content does not match their perceptions as much as traditional media content. According to the mentioned 2016 FPU et  al survey, Facebook is the highest-rated application for verifying information, topping the list at 33 percent, followed by Google (14 percent) and SANA website (12 percent).

As far as the use of mobile phone as a news source is concerned, this is not widespread. This finding can be explained by the extremely high cost of mobile Internet subscription, the unreliable Internet connections and limited coverage and the deteriorating state of the mobile infrastructures.

In general, there are many Syrian websites completely devoted to news, but no one could be considered unbiased and fully reliable as each one is promoting a partial narrative. For instance, on the opposition-aligned side there is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and on the other side, the Iranian-dominated Military Media Center. Among others, there are: the long-standing pro-opposition and secular website Kulluna Shuraka’ (AllForSyria)  founded in the early 2000s by the then-exiled dissident Ayman Abd al-Nur; the conservative Shaam.org created in 2011, the pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl, Durar al-Sham, Tahrir suri news platform and the website of opposition Al-Jisr TV. In the pro-government sphere, besides the website of SANA news agency, there are: Syria-News.com and SyriaNow. Other sources of news online are local media platforms (as the aforementioned Yawmiyyat Qadhifat Hawun), which they mainly function on Facebook.