Regulatory authorities

On August 2011, President Bashar al-Asad approved a new media law, which establishes a National Media Council (NMC). This is linked to the cabinet and regulates the information sector under the new law. Among other duties, the NMC sets conditions for licenses, issues them to private media outlets and specifies rules on funding. However, the NMC lacks independence, effectively serving as a mouthpiece for the government’s media policy and a vehicle for state propaganda. Although the law requires authorities to consult the NMC before detaining or arresting journalists, searching or seizing their equipment, or investigating their activities, this process is a mere formality. The NMC is the sole entity authorised to issue media credentials to journalists and - according to the mentioned report by Freedom House - in March 2014 it began to crack down on outlets that provided press cards and other professional identification to journalists without going through official channels. The NMC maintains a stringent registration and licensing regime and closely monitors outlets to ensure compliance. The NMC also regularly criticises media coverage displeasing to the government and works to intimidate outlets into taking a pro-government editorial line. For example - as Freedom House reports - in September 2016, the NMC criticised outlets for using allegedly sympathetic language to describe armed opposition groups and insisted that they instead refer to such groups as “terrorists.” According to Reporter Without Borders, since 2018, reputedly pro-government Syrian journalists have been charged or threatened by the intelligence services in connection with what they reported. The most emblematic of these cases is that of Wissam al-Tayr, the famous editor of the very influential pro-government page Damascus Now, who was arrested in December 2018. Some sources say he made the mistake of posting a poll about the fuel crisis in Syria. He was released after nine months thanks to a presidential amnesty. Journalists working for pro-government media outlets sometimes have used their privileged position and their connections to raise awareness of matters such as poor living standards or corruption. However, as Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk says in reference to the recent arrest of yet another journalist “corruption and the economic crisis are kept off limits for Syria’s journalists although they are a real concern for the population in this war-torn country.” On 15 August 2014, the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the governing body in the Kurdish majority areas of Syria, established the Yekîtiya Ragihandina Azad (Union of Free Media - YRA). The YRA, based in Qamishli, is an official body with numerous press-related functions. Subsequently, when the High Council for Media was established, it took over the authority to grant license for media organisations and journalists that want to work in Rojava. Therefore, all news media in the Kurdish cantons must request and obtain permits from the council in order to be able to operate in the area. Some reports suggest that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant Kurdish political party in Rojava, exercises undue influence over the two bodies to monitor and control independent media. Moreover, temporary or permanent suspensions of licenses are often used to exert control over journalists. For example, as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in May 2020 the authorities suspended Rudaw reporter Vivian Fatah’s press credentials for two months, thereby banning her from working as a journalist during that time, because she used the word “killed” rather than “martyred” when referring to fallen members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. According to Reporters Without Borders, the PYD and its henchmen have no qualms about arresting or even abducting news and information providers whom they see as too critical, in order to silence them and intimidate the others. Also, many news providers report that they must keep the security forces (Asayish) informed of their movements. The authorities argue that such authorisation is necessary for the journalists’ safety. Nevertheless, a variety of print and broadcast outlets are generally allowed to operate, including those that are critical of the ruling party.