Silencing mouths by law force

Al-Assad resets media threads in Syria

Head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, appears in a camera lens while chairing the meeting of the new cabinet after it was sworn in - 14 August 2021 (Facebook/Presidency page)

Silencing mouths by law force

Al-Assad resets media threads in Syria

Head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, appears in a camera lens while chairing the meeting of the new cabinet after it was sworn in - 14 August 2021 (Facebook/Presidency page)

Head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, appears in a camera lens while chairing the meeting of the new cabinet after it was sworn in - 14 August 2021 (Facebook/Presidency page)

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Hussam al-Mahmoud | Jana al-Issa | Hassan Ibrahim

Since the beginning of the revolution in 2011, state-run media outlets have appeared in a floundering manner, trying to deal with events with a legacy established by a central structure linked to political decision-making.

The regime’s attempts to revive its media machine and organize its work did not succeed, despite repeated attempts that did not emerge from the womb of decrees, decisions, and legislation.

On 8 November, the regime’s government approved a draft decree establishing the Ministry of Information, replacing the old ministry created by Decree 186 of 1961.

The new ministry will strengthen content censorship and dominate the various aspects and sectors of media work in Syria, and it will bear in its tasks and objectives features of greater restrictions on freedom of expression.

According to the second article of the new decree, the new ministry replaces the old one, stating its goals and tasks that touched on publishing through social media, creating external offices for the media, strengthening control over dramatic content, and monitoring the media performance of all institutions and media outlets.

In this file, Enab Baladi discussed with media experts and a former advisor in the government the feasibility and purpose of such a step and the extent of its potential impact on the reality of media work in Syria in light of the multiplicity of digital platforms for streaming media content, through unofficial portals, whether dramatic or digital media or social media platforms.

Tracks for a firm grip

The work to create a new ministry was not a coincidence but rather part of an endeavor whose ultimate goal is to reset the rhythm of media content in Syria in all its forms, starting from the local media sector to drama series and social media platforms.

Head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, during his meeting with his government ministers and a talk about “fighting corruption” - 2 September 2020 (Facebook/Presidency page)

Head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, during his meeting with his government ministers and a talk about “fighting corruption” – 2 September 2020 (Facebook/Presidency page)

A new ministry?

The new draft decree did not completely nullify what was stated in the Media Law issued by Decree 108 of 2011 but added other provisions to some of the articles of basic principles contained in Chapter Two of the Media Law.

These include drawing up media policy, developing strategies and plans compatible with it, and supervising its implementation in accordance with the “general policy of the state.”

The draft decree also included licensing media training centers, media research centers, opinion polls, and media service companies and monitoring their performance, activity, and compliance with the law.

In addition to monitoring the media content of periodical and non-periodical publications inside Syria and their compliance with the law and regulations in force.

The draft decree also included indirect directives for the work of Arab and foreign media outlets that could visit regime-controlled areas by escorting visiting press and media delegations, securing their movements, and providing appropriate conditions for the delegations to perform their tasks and inform them of “civilized Syria,” according to Article 4 which defined the Ministry’s tasks, especially monitoring the media performance of all media outlets and institutions and the extent of their compliance with the law.

The new ministry’s objectives according to the draft:

–        Setting up the general media policy, developing strategies and plans compatible with it, and supervising its implementation in accordance with the state’s general policy.

–        Ensuring the citizen’s right to obtain media services in its various forms.

–        Ensuring freedom of media work and expression of opinion in the national media outlets in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and the law.

–        Stimulating and organizing fair competition in the media sector and working to prevent practices that violate it.

–        Connecting media to society in a way that enhances national and Arab identity and cultural diversity.

–        Participating in deepening democracy and political pluralism and promoting the values of equality and social justice.

–        Contributing to the development process in its various forms and promoting awareness among society to protect natural resources, establishments, institutions, and respect for the law.

–        Informing public opinion in Syria and the world about the reality of events in the Syrian Arab Republic in all fields and defining its renaissance, its cultural heritage, and its role in building human civilization.

–        Advancing the national advertising and promotional industry internally and externally.

–        Supervising, supporting, and directing dramatic production in the service of national and development issues through evaluating dramatic and documentary texts, encouraging the establishment of TV and film production companies, institutions, and cities, and expanding areas of cooperation for joint production.

–        Cooperation and participation with the private sector to invest in the media sector.

Head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, media advisor Buthaina Shaaban, Information Minister, Boutros al-Hallaq (R) and media figures - 19 November 2022 (Facebook/Janbulat Shikay)

Head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, media advisor Buthaina Shaaban, Information Minister, Boutros al-Hallaq (R) and media figures – 19 November 2022 (Facebook/Janbulat Shikay)

Media law neglects media workers

In conjunction with the draft of the new ministry, and after it was put up for discussion in 2017, the government of the regime also approved the legislative instrument that includes the new media law.

The ministry justified this step by “creating a modern law in line with developments in the field of media and communication,” especially in matters related to means of social media, accreditation of media offices for non-Syrian media, media research centers, opinion polls, and training centers.

The new law has sparked criticism from journalists and media workers for not including them in its discussion and making proposals that are appropriate for their work, and that actually preserve their rights.

During an interview with the local al-Madina FM radio on 17 November, Syrian journalist Bilal Suleitine considered the lack of participation of journalists in the draft law as an indication of the ministry’s lack of confidence in its journalists, criticizing the lack of transparency.

At the same time, he pointed out that it was not possible to obtain the text of the law governing the work of the ministry since 1961 in order to determine the differences between it and the new law.

After the regime’s government approved the legislative instrument, criticism emerged, some of which centered around the formation of a tripartite committee comprising the ministers of information, communications, and tourism, to study the proposals of the committee charged with drafting the media law.

The editor-in-chief of the local pro-regime newspaper, al-Watan, and a member of the law-drafting committee, Waddah Abd Rabbo, considered this committee “interesting.”

He wondered about the purpose of having the Minister of Tourism within it, and she is far from this jurisdiction, explaining that this only serves the technical side of the digital media only.

Fighting information crime

The approval of the media bill was preceded by the introduction of amendments last May, to the “combating information crime” law, at a time when criticism of the government had increased, especially through social media, under the pressure of the low economic and living conditions that govern life in regime-controlled areas.

Information (electronic) crime is one that is committed through computer devices or the network or is located on information systems or the network.

Since some of its amended articles were leaked at the end of 2021, the law sparked widespread controversy among social media users, and activists considered it a “gagging of mouths,” while jurists criticized what they considered general and unclear phrases, such as “undermining the prestige of the state,” and “undermining the prestige of the state employee.” 

The law detailed the penalties and fines imposed on the perpetrators of information crimes and includes increasing the penalty if the crime is committed against a public entity while tightening the penalties for some crimes that have increased in prevalence and perpetration through electronic means, such as defamation and electronic defamation, crimes of infringement of modesty and crimes “against the constitution.” 

Drama series under the microscope

The draft placed the Syrian drama on the list of tasks and objectives of the new ministry’s work as it has the role of supervising the content and “supporting and directing it in the service of national and development issues” by evaluating dramatic and documentary texts and approving it for watching as well granting permission to film artistic and dramatic works after validating the texts for displaying.

It does not seem strange that the regime is trying to “bridle” the drama industry.

In the Ramadan 2022 season, a set of local series filmed in the capital, Damascus, has dealt with contemporary issues such as nepotism, corruption, bribery, and the control of certain groups over the state’s resources, economy, and decision, shedding light on the state of chaos that has been evident in recent years.

Some of these works were widely accepted and spread by the public during the show period. Some of the regime’s officials at the time did not spare criticism and attempted to “redirect” them, as the Ministry of Information and the Film and Television Industry Committee held, on 31 July, a workshop entitled “Syrian Drama… Thought Industry and Social Responsibility.”

During the workshop, the director of the Public Authority for Radio and Television, Habib Suleiman, called for immunizing the drama against the flattening and distortion of values and for loading it with the values of tolerance and love.

This step was preceded, in May of the same year, by the Media and Communications Committee of the People’s Assembly, during its meeting with the Minister of Information, Boutros al-Hallaq, and directors of media institutions, classifying the Syrian drama “in colors.”

The local Sham FM radio station quoted committee member Nabil Tohme as saying that the dialogues revolved around “black, yellow and patriotic drama,” referring to the works that were shown during the Ramadan season of 2022 and dealt with the situation in Syria, considering that some of these works presented social issues negatively.

This is not considered the first criticism of dramas in that period, as before that, the Assistant Secretary-General of the Baath Party, Hilal al-Hilal, expressed his objection to the Syrian dramatic product during 2022, considering that it destroys society in a country that has stood for ten years and depicts Syria as a forest teeming with chaos and corruption and this portrayal is absolutely incorrect, according to his description.

Burying Media Council?

Under the name “Media Law,” Decree No. 108 was issued on 28 August 2011, less than six months after the outbreak of popular protests against the Syrian regime.

In addition to defining the functions of the media and prohibiting the publication of anything that harms the “symbols of the state,” the decree stipulated the creation of the National Media Council, which is linked to the Council of Ministers and undertakes the organization of the media sector in accordance with the provisions of this law.

Before the amendments added by the new draft decree, Decree 108 was subject to another amendment that came in Decree 23 of 2016, in which al-Assad canceled the provisions of Chapter Four of Decree 108, which means suspending the National Media Council, only five years after its establishment, as an indication of the failure of the Council to carry out the tasks entrusted to it by the regime at the time.

The former advisor to the Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Ahmed al-Hussein, explained that creating a ministry in the presence of another existing one for the same purpose means changing the tasks of the current ministry to be more comprehensive and responsive to changes.

Al-Hussein told Enab Baladi, according to his knowledge of the work of the ministries, that the draft decree constitutes an official abolition of what was called the National Media Council. In addition, the expansion of the ministry’s powers gives it some of the powers of other institutions, such as the Union of Journalists.

Among the aims of the new ministry, for example, is to grant professional cards to media professionals, an issue that was previously in the hands of the Union of Journalists.

The former advisor pointed out the possibility of interpreting the ministry’s events as an administrative work based on changing tasks and the emergence of new needs that the laws are supposed to meet without denying that there is a possible political dimension based on more silencing of mouths and increasing the dose of censorship.

Amr Salem, Internal Trade Minister, during the opening of a bakery in the coastal Latakia city - 10 November 2022 (Facebook/Ministry of Internal Trade)

Amr Salem, Internal Trade Minister, during the opening of a bakery in the coastal Latakia city – 10 November 2022 (Facebook/Ministry of Internal Trade)

Media-focused meetings

Last November, about two weeks after the decree was approved, al-Assad met with a group of media professionals and journalists working for the local Syrian media in the presence of his advisor, Buthaina Shaaban, and the Minister of Information, Boutros al-Hallaq.

This meeting was not reported at the time by the official media, nor by the accounts of the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic on social media, while allowing the journalists who attended the meeting to share a group photo with al-Assad, as happened in his meeting with other media professionals in January 2021.

Yahya Koussa, of the state-run Radio Damascus, who attended the meeting with al-Assad, said, “What matters most to us is our understanding of the meeting as being direct support for the media from the Presidency of the Republic, and keenness to deliver information to the Syrian media professionals,” according to the Tartus-based Syria Home News website.

On the 9th of the same month, the Minister of Information, Boutros al-Hallaq, made a presentation to the People’s Assembly about the work of his ministry and what it had implemented since the beginning of the year.

According to al-Hallaq, the ministry was able to “develop media content and discourse, legal and administrative structure, training activity, support for the drama industry, inter-relationships with ministries, expand coverage services for SANA, develop digital journalism and “restructure” the websites of state newspapers with a new visual identity,” according to Presidency of the Council of Ministers at the time.

On the 21st of last August, the Union of Journalists organized a media symposium entitled “Media Law: A Soon Amendment,” during which the Assistant Minister of Information, Ahmed Dhawa, explained that the draft of the new media law was discussed with journalists, media professionals, and other groups of society after it was studied by specialized committees in the government.

He pointed out the keenness to issue a “modern and practical” law, linking the freedom of the media and the responsibility of the media person.

At the time, Dhawa explained that the study of the media law is being conducted by the Ministry of Information, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, and the Human Development Committee, considering that the “core of the issue” is focusing on ensuring freedom of media work and the delivery of information, according to what SANA reported.

On the occasion of the 53rd anniversary of the government al-Thawra newspaper last July, al-Hallaq said that the study of the new media law is taking place within the framework of thinking about “flexible modern legislation” in cooperation with the Ministry of Administrative Development.

What is the likely effect?

Journalist Mohammad Alaeddin considers that approving the draft decree is a structuring process that does not mean eliminating the old ministry, with increasing the powers of the new ministry and extending it to the media, including digital media and social media.

The regime’s tendency to clamp down on the media coincided with the escalation of media freedoms and media discourse, granting more freedom to discuss various aspects of life in the world, a behavior familiar to totalitarian regimes that, in periods of “faltering,” try to legitimize their dominance even over the social situation, Alaeddin added.

With regard to monitoring the dramatic content, the Syrian journalist explained that the state of censorship by the Ministry of Information over dramatic text and books also exists, and there are text monitoring committees and a censorship directorate, all of which are affiliated with the ministry.

According to Alaeddin, there are no future positive effects that the ministry’s events may produce, and on the contrary, it may constitute an increase in justifications for arresting any voice that deviates from the official authority’s narrative and does not necessarily have to be in opposition.

Just as the accusations of “weakening the nation’s resolve” and “weakening national sentiment” were a pretext for arrest, the provisions contained in the draft resolution are capable of tightening the screws further and punishing those who do not comply with “change.”

The journalist also focused on the fact that the new media law specifically targets the mass media and platforms, which are factors of concern for the regime due to their popularity and proximity to the street, and that it is difficult to control them in the normal situation, unlike the large media outlets that have a clear organization, bodies, and structural departments. 

Syria has recently been witnessing a state of social anger, reflected on social media, over the deteriorating economic and service conditions, and has reached the point of direct criticism and accusations against officials (except Bashar al-Assad) of corruption and mismanagement, while 90% of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to UN figures.

Transparency International ranks Syria 178 out of 180 countries in its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Boutros al-Hallaq, regime’s information minister, in the People’s Assembly discussing the performance of the Ministry of Information - 9 November 2022 (Facebook/ Syrian Ministers Council)

Boutros al-Hallaq, regime’s information minister, in the People’s Assembly discussing the performance of the Ministry of Information – 9 November 2022 (Facebook/ Syrian Ministers Council)

‘Devoid of value’

The veteran Syrian TV host, Abd al-Mu’in Abd al-Majid, told Enab Baladi about the Syrian regime’s attempt at the beginning of the revolution to solve the problems of media inadequacy in its institutions by creating the Supreme Council for Media, but it failed to do so, so it stopped it, although it would be more beneficial to keep the Council and give the ministry logistical administratively role only, but the Ministry of Information sidelined the Council at the time, which made it lose its effectiveness, and turned it into something like a trade union committee.

At the same time, Abd al-Majid doubted the existence of media experts who could submit proposals to change, create, or amend a specific decision or part, with the exception of some retirees, who today are far from media work.

On the other hand, Samir Matar, head of the opposition’s Syrian Journalists Association, considered the changes related to the development of a media law and the creation of a new ministry as “worthless” since the ministries as a whole are at the disposal of the regime’s intelligence.

Matar told Enab Baladi, “It cannot be said that there is any benefit from any new information ministry, as long as journalists who criticize the regime’s policy are threatened with imprisonment and arrest in a record time, and as long as this happens, the changes are illusory and useless.”

The threats that journalists receive are represented by the case of journalist Kenan Wakkaf, who was arrested three times within one year, the most recent of which was last February, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organization, after he criticized the activity of the presidency in Syria by receiving a controversial actress and her husband amid a deteriorating economic reality.

Syria ranks as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of freedom of expression, as it ranked 171 out of 180 in the annual ranking of freedom of expression issued by Reporters Without Borders for the year 2021.

The RSF stressed the absence of a free press in the areas controlled by the Syrian regime, noting that the media only transmits the official discourse directed by the regime. Syria also topped the classification of the Committee to Protect Journalists as the most deadly country for journalists in the world in 2019.

Media without impact

During a phone call to the local al-Madina FM radio on 17 November, Nahla Issa, a professor at the faculty of mass communication, spoke about a huge gap in recent years between the Syrian media and the public and that this relationship is not “going well.”

Issa considered that the Syrian media, throughout its history, has always been an authoritarian tool and a voice of authority, and it did not play the role of mediator between the rulers and the ruled, and for this reason, the masses do not resort to it except when the speeches are solemn because it conveys the official narrative.

Issa also explained that people in crises resort to their national media for reassurance, but the performance of the Syrian media at the “beginning of the war” was shaky, unable to keep up with the events, and was improvised and floundering.

We lack a lot of craftsmanship, and our performance has a lot of concavity, and our texts are wooden so far. Contemporary media surpassed our media practices many years ago, and until now, we are still working with the nineties mindset.

Nahla Issa, Ph.D., Faculty of Mass Communication, Damascus University

In view of the mechanism of the Syrian recipient’s use and view of the official media, journalist Mohammad Alaeddin explained that the official media, since the pre-revolution period and its current media style, have lost much of its credibility and prevalence, as it is concerned with appeasing the authority and “receiving and bidding farewell,” without regard to what constitutes a real concern for the citizen.

This is evident simply by framing the news bulletins on official televisions or the daily briefings issued by the Ministry of Information, which prioritize the activities and statements of the head of the Syrian regime and officials at the expense of sovereign files or those that carry change and impact on the lives of citizens.

Enab Baladi spoke to a journalist working for one of the official media outlets in Damascus (she spoke on condition of anonymity for security concerns), and she said that the Syrian street does not believe everything that the official media says, and this appears clearly by looking at people’s comments on social media regarding issues that concern them. 

The journalist added that the statements that are being made about the current fuel crisis in Syria, and the associated reduction in allocations, are not believed by people, but rather they consider them a pretext and a prelude to raising future prices for the commodity.

In the same context, Abd al-Majid ruled out the existence of any kind of influence of the official media in Syria that goes beyond being a platform for the propaganda of power, referring to some few cases of guests appearing on the screen and speaking freely, given that the regime no longer cares about what people say, it can sometimes be enough to exclude the guest in TV shows and not invite him/her again.

A camera on a chair before the appearance of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, after winning the presidential elections - 28 May 2021 (Facebook/Syria’s Presidency of the Council of Ministers)

A camera on a chair before the appearance of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, after winning the presidential elections – 28 May 2021 (Facebook/Syria’s Presidency of the Council of Ministers)

 

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