Is prosecution of retailers on air an act of media transparency or Shabiha intimidation?
Enab Baladi – Noureddine Ramadan
“Uncle! I need you to tell me about the wholesaler that sold you these vegetables, or else they will put you in prison.”
It was not a judge during a hearing, but a presenter on state-owned Syria TV, that brought the issue of prison as he talked with a vegetable store owner in Bab al-Srija Market in central Damascus. The man was too afraid to disclose the prices of his vegetables because they were higher than ones fixed by the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection.
An officer of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) asked the store owner to show him his identity card to write a report, referring him to the court. The court might give him a two-year sentence for violating pricing laws.
The store owner, in his fifties, was lost for words, helpless in front of the camera and the TV crew. He told the TV presenter that the maximum retail prices set by the government for vegetables are lower than wholesale prices at al-Hal Maket.
He added that he has to sell people vegetables at prices higher than the government prices to make a modest profit and support his family. He responded in a broken voice, “I had to do this. It is ok you can handcuff me. There is nothing I can do.”
This short scene summarizes the situation of retailers in Bab al-Srija Market, in the capital Damascus, for which Syria TV dedicated one program episode.
Appearing on the program, aired on 18 April, the CMA officer, who accompanied the TV presenter that day, said that he wrote over 10 official police reports against retailers breaching the government’s ceiling price lists, with dozen others written off-camera.
The TV presenter was enforcing the decree issued by the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad on 12 April. The decree tightens penalties and fines on monopolists, those selling without invoices, or without price tags, manipulating weight, as well as selling at higher prices.
As always, just a few months before the presidential elections, Bashar al-Assad— as a part of his electoral campaign for the best presidential candidate— issued decrees that aim seemingly to ease economic pressures on Syrians residing in areas he controls. Electoral propaganda also explains why pro-government media outlets and the CMA are giving “serious” consideration to these decrees’ application.
What do retailers say?
Speaking with Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity, a retailer in the Bab al-Srija Market, where the episode or surprise inspection visit was filmed, said that the prices set by the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection do not take into account that a retailer is supposed to make a profit that keeps his storefront stocked and his business running.
Over the phone, he added that the profit should cover at least operating expenses, bills, taxes, and other costs. The Ministry is trying only to make a show of how prices are stable, and everything is under its control at the expense of retailers. That is why we find that all the decisions issued in recent months target retailers as if the depreciation of the Syrian currency is their responsibility.
He added that the practices of the pro-government media outlets are unacceptable. It is unfair to put the blame on food retailers for the high prices. This creates tensions between the citizens and retailers. He said that what the CMA is asking for is illogical. Rising prices is everyone’s responsibility, not only the retailers’.
He added that it is not in the interest of the retailer to sell at prices that violate the law, especially since he knows well that he will be imprisoned for that. Furthermore, “no one is happy with the insult that the retailers have received on TV last week.”
Legal and media perspectives
Commenting on the embarrassment of food retailers in programs on Syria TV, holding them responsible for rising prices, Yazan Badran, a media researcher at the University of Brussels, said it is clear that these actions have nothing whatsoever to do with the media ethics. Journalism, as a profession, aims to monitor reality, gather and publish information objectively and transparently.
Badran told Enab Baladi that the goal of the Syrian state media is obvious. It is to mobilize viewers against retailers for price spikes and relieve the pressure exerted on consumers by punishing less effective groups—which do not directly relate to growing prices—confirming that the state is still holding the reins of power.
Badran also pointed out that under totalitarian regimes, all people involved in such plays, including the inspection officer, journalists, retailers, and the TV viewers know their role and limit.
Syrian lawyer Ghazwan Qurunful believes that in this incident, the media is extorting, exerting pressure, and defaming food retailers under allegations of transparency. No media outlet has the right to libel law violators, even if they obtained evidence. It is the judiciary’s job to hold perpetrators accountable, not media outlets.
According to Syria’s Press and Publications Law, Article No. 49, paragraph 2, “perpetrators of slander crimes through publications shall be punished in accordance with the provisions of the General Penal Code.”
in a video posted on YouTube, Syrian journalist Nidal Maalouf commented on the Bab al-Srija Market incident, saying that the authorities’ insistence that small retailers are behind the deterioration of citizens’ living conditions increases the crisis; it does not solve anything.
Maalouf stressed that it is pointless to prosecute, impose fines, or imprison these people, wondering with a sarcastic tone: How could we make CMA officers, TV reporters, officials, and the president understand that this person (the seller) is not the cause of the affliction, but it is the unknown monopolist, who prices materials through WhatsApp.
Maalouf told Enab Baladi that the solution to a major crisis in Syria does not start with the weakest links, leaving the leading causes, such as failure of management, depletion of resources, rampant corruption, the mafia economy— in reference to influential business people who have links with the Syrian regime—the collapse of the Syrian state, and failure to reach a solution that could stop the collapse.
He explained that the radical solution to stop the economic collapse is to reach a political solution.
Ninety percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to UN estimates. In a 23 March report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) stated that Syria, along with 18 other countries, is facing risks of food insecurity.
In June 2020, the UN World Food Program spokesperson Elizabeth Byers warned of an unprecedented hunger crisis in Syria due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), noting that nine million and 300 thousand people in Syria lack sufficient food.
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