The Arab press in the Mashreq area saw the light between Beirut and Damascus thanks to the efforts of Christian and Muslim intellectuals, who had often received their education in the secular and religious institutes set up by European missionaries and teachers in Ottoman Syria. On the one hand, the political overturning, ensued from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the French Mandate (1920-1946) over the two new national states (Lebanon and Syria), fostered political debates and gradually enlarged the public of readers; but on the other hand, it led to the first bans on freedom of expression and press. The French authorities repeatedly shut down the media belonging to the Syrian nationalists hostile to the policies dictated from Paris. The twenty years following the formal achievement of independence (1946) are described as the golden age of contemporary Syria. Until 1963, the year of the Baathist coup, there was a breath of unusual openness, interrupted by authoritarian breaks. The Baathist government shut down all independent newspapers. The only newspaper pre-dating the coup that still exists is Al-Baath (Reawakening), the mouthpiece of the ruling party, founded in 1946 (see above). Since then, the situation has remained actually unchanged, despite the enactment of three different Constitutions in fifty years (1964, 1973, 2012) and an equal number of press laws. This is the repercussion of the binary shape featuring the structure of power: The institutional façade (the Constitutions, the laws and their ratified principles) does not mirror the reality on the ground, which is determined by the logics of effective power. In particular, thanks to the approval of the first press law under Hafez al-Asad (1970-2000) in 1974, the Syrian media became a vehicle to promote the cult of the President. The government can confiscate and destroy any work believed to be a potential threat to national security. There are certain taboos commonly known - religious and ethnic minorities, religion, references to sex, criticism directed at the state must be aimed only at state institutions without names. The President must never be mentioned with sarcasm or in a joke. As Lisa Weeden notes, all these unwritten prohibitions are perfectly understood by everyone.
After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in June 2000, a new press law, Decree No 50, known as the Publications Law, passed on 22 September 2001. The new press law, hailed by the authorities as a sign of liberalisation, legalised private media. However, the draconian regulation of content all but erased any apparent gains in freedom of expression. The law states that private presses are to be unrestricted in their operations. All periodicals must obtain licens
ces to publish by the Prime Minister - who may reject an application at any time for the sake of “public interest,” They can lose their license and face extremely high fines (between 500,000 and 1m Syrian pounds) and/or up to three years’ imprisonment if they publish “falsehoods” and “fabricated reports,” report on military affairs, accept funds by foreign sources, incite public unrest or in any way threaten the “national interest”.
In 2012, the new Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic came into force. In Articles 42 and 43 it guarantees the right for freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press. However, these rights can be restricted through several security-related regulations. For example in 2011, in response to the growing unrest that erupted across the country, the government proposed a package of legislative reforms and decided to repeal the Emergency Law, which had been in effect for 48 years. The abolition of this law, a key demand of protesters, represented a major change to the legal framework that supported the government’s tight control on the citizens’ freedoms and that listed an extensive variety of offences that could be invoked to restrain both writers and publications. In the same year, President al-Asad issued a legislative decree (No 108), which outlines what can be seen on paper as a lift of the oppressive media legislation. It states the absence of a “monopoly on the media” and guarantees the “right to access of information about public affairs” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists.” In practice, however, these protections are virtually nonexistent in government-held areas. The legislation also contains several anti-press clauses, including barring the media from publishing content that affects “national unity and national security,” or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes” and forbids the publication of any information about the armed forces. It holds editors-in-chief, journalists and even spokespeople accountable for actions that constitute a violation of the law and prescribes fines of up to 1m Syrian pounds. Art3 states that the law “upholds freedom of expression guaranteed in the Syrian constitution,” but Art4 says the media must “practice [their freedom of expression] with awareness and responsibility,” without further clarification of the statement’s meaning, which gives the authorities leeway to crack down on independent outlets. The law also calls for the establishment of the Al-Majlis al-watani li’l-i‘lam (National Media Council - NMC) to regulate the information sector (see below).
Also Law No. 9328, known as the 1985 Law on Associations and Private Societies, can restrict the establishment of media organisations. The law regulates the establishment of any kind of association or organisation in the Syrian Arab Republic. Following this law, all meetings are strictly controlled. According to Art 26, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has the right to appoint board members of any association at any time and the law grants the Ministry the authority to dissolve associations “if the Ministry finds that there is no need for the services of the association” (Art 36). In addition to media laws, security-related legislation has been used to control and punish journalists. In July 2012, after the Emergency Law was repealed, the government passed the Counter-Terrorism Law No 19, which has basically reinstated its emergency powers under a different name. Article 8, in particular, has in fact since targeted many civilians, charged with the accusation of “publicizing terrorist acts” and “promoting terrorist activities” - this same law describes a terrorist act as “every act that aims at creating a state of panic among the people, destabilizing public security.”
Additionally, journalists are required by law to divulge their sources when requested by authorities. According to the Penal Code, defamation is a crime, for which punishments vary between fines (starting from 100 pounds), to imprisonment, depending on the case and the subjects involved. Relying on the state-run SANA for most of their material, state-employed editorial staffs are required by law to undergo state-certified training and to register with the Union of Journalists, which is overseen by the Ministry of Information.
As for advertising revenue, the 2001 law confirms the monopoly of the government through the state-run Arab Advertising Organisation (AAO), which does not publish figures. As Bajazi points out, “commercial broadcasting companies can exist on the margin of the system, but they are usually controlled either by regime cronies or cash-rich state companies from outside the media sector.” The 2001 also law contains an article that prohibits media outlets from generating revenue by selling advertising space to foreign governments. Inside the Damascus’s Free Zone (DFZ), private media must pay taxes to the AAO only for Syrian advertisements or foreign advertisements that mention a Syrian name. Outside the DFZ, the authorities require private media to turn over 25 percent of all advertising revenue to the AAO and pay a 40 percent tax to the state-run Syrian Company for Distribution (SCD).
Almost all the aforementioned laws related to speech offences are equally applicable to the online environment, but in 2012 the president issued a specific decree known as the Cybercrime Law. This law criminalises illegal access to computer systems and websites without having the right or authority or permission to do so. It also punishes with imprisonment and/or a fine anyone who copies, uses or discloses information obtained by such illegal access. It therefore seems to replicate and adapt to the online environment the same prohibitions of the new Press Law regarding the publication of private information, even if that information is correct plus it also contains a number of measures restricting freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The most concerning provisions are those requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to retain Internet traffic for an indeterminate period of time in order to identify content providers. It is further unclear whether access to that data is subject to a court order or judicial oversight. Moreover, the Cybercrime Law provides a legal basis for website filtering and blocking. In March 2018, this law was amended by Law No 9, which creates special courts of first instance (bida’iyya in the Syrian system) and delegates judges specifically trained for the prosecution of cybercrimes.
The government used to resort also to travel bans to silence journalists. The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) issued a report in February 2009 listing 417 political and human-rights activists banned from traveling outside Syria.
Sources in areas under government rule refer that in the news kiosks nowadays there are only the three government newspapers and Al-Watan. In addition to these, it is still possible to find Al-Nur, (organ of one of the legal sections of the Syrian Communist Party) and Qasiyun (organ of the People’s Will Party). There are still some magazines, such as Souriatna (Our Syria), Ta’min wa Ma‘rifa, Masarif wa Ta’min (devoted to banks, finance and insurances), Al-Sahat (Arenas). The financial magazine Al-Iqtisadi has suspended its paper version for lack of advertising revenues and survives only online. There is no trace of pan-Arab and Lebanese newspapers. The Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera has never been allowed to open a permanent bureau in the country, while local correspondents of Al Arabiya TV and Al-Hayat newspaper, both owned by the Saudis, should strictly compel to the rules imposed by authorities. Prior to 2011, self-censorship was widespread at all levels of the journalistic process, as it was the primary way of filtering information in Syria in public and private media.
The legal environment for the media in territories outside the government’s influence varies, according to the group in control. Only over recent years media workers have started to realise the importance of having a comprehensive legal framework for their work. This helps reach different objectives: Firstly and foremost, they can protect their project from changing political climates (this is especially true for those organisations headquartered in Turkey) and therefore create a more stable organisation; finally, it helps to liaise with international donors and partners. If in the aftermath of the beginning of the uprising, almost no one had given serious consideration to the issue of licensing/registration, later this has clearly become much more present. There is a noticeable increase in their structuration and consolidation, with new management structures and administrative positions in many of the outlets. However, whilst - on the one hand - most media outlets seem to be more aware of the importance of such a stronger institutionalisation and are moving in this direction; on the other hand, this development is relatively inhibited by the general lack of the necessary skills and expertise.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights notes that the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls large swaths of territory throughout Idlib governorate, tends to apply a policy of restrictive regulation of journalists and media outlet who allegedly pose a threat to the group’s ideological hegemony and extremist approach. Also human Rights Watch has documented several cases in which the group detained Idlib residents, apparently because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group’s rule. For example, in January 2016, HTS stormed the facilities of Radio Fresh in Kafr Nabl and after that, confiscated its equipment, arrested its manager and erased its archives, all under the pretext that it had been broadcasting “immoral” programmes with female announcers and music. (The station responded by playing animal sounds and disguising the voices of women news readers). When in November 2018, its founder, Raed Fares, was shot dead, journalists and observers suspected HTS was behind the attack. In January 2017 HTS confiscated for some time an issue of pro-opposition Enab Baladi magazine, preventing its distribution, due to an opinion article criticising the Jabhat al-Nusra. Moreover, scholar Haid Haid notes that by using their social media channels on Telegram, Facebook and WhatsApp groups, HTS (and its affiliated Iba’ network) has systematically tried to undermine the credibility of Orient TV and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
Legal conditions are somewhat more permissive in Syrian Kurdistan, which in 2014 formally declared local autonomy and established its own constitution. Art 24, in particular, states “the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” However, the same article also specifies that such freedoms may be curtailed to ensure the “security of the autonomous regions, public safety and order, the integrity of the individual” and other interests, seemingly opening the door to restrictive laws on issues like sedition and defamation. According to a report by Freedom House, a US-based NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, in August 2015, PYD officials withdraw the operating licenses of the Erbil-based Rudaw Media Network, associated with the KDP and Orient TV, the outlet owned by an exiled Syrian tycoon who opposes Assad, accusing both of inciting violence and spreading false news. The current press law dates back to December 2015 and establishes criteria for obtaining media licenses and accreditation for journalists. It also institutes a press council whose aim is to monitor media reporting and identify law violations, which can result in fines and temporary or permanent revocation of licenses.