Syria remains a holdout in the Middle East against the forces of popular discontent. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has so far stayed in power throughout the Arab uprisings where the autocrats of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya have failed. Other regimes have been forced to make political changes. If you listen to Assad himself, in his recent—rather surreal—interview with Barbara Walters, the reason he is still in power is the great love the Syrian people have for him. Indeed, he told Walters, so secure is he in their affections that not even alleged sabotage orchestrated by the West can topple him.
This is hardly the version you get from human rights activists. The Syrian crackdown on protesters and dissidents has been extremely brutal—and much in line with the repressive nature of the Assad regime, under both father and son. The death toll of Syrians killed during the Arab Spring uprisings, according to U.N. figures, in November stood at an estimated 3,500, but could be much higher. Some 15,000 people have been arrested, tortured, and detained. According to a new report by Reporters Without Borders, “Media as Key Witnesses and Political Pawns: Upheaval in the Arab World,” Syria has been particularly relentless—even by Middle East standards—in its suppression of the media, persecuting local journalists and bloggers as well as driving out foreign media.
The Assad regime continues true to form in its repression of free expression, while making certain efforts (like the Walters interview) to improve its international image. Reporters Without Borders notes that Assad did release five journalists and bloggers in November, some of whom had been arrested multiple times, as part of a release of more than 900 detainees before the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Earlier this week, President al-Assad established a National Information Council with the purpose of regulating radio, television, and the Internet, formalizing a more sophisticated type of censorship, if you will. The Syrian regime has learned a number of lessons from the fall of other Middle Eastern autocracies and is not about to let Internet activism and mass media get out of hand.
Reporters Without Borders, as part of its report, publishes a partial list of Syrian bloggers and journalists in detention. For example, on December 4, blogger Razan Ghazzawi was detained on the Syria–Jordan border while she was on her way to Amman. Ghazzawi is a gay rights activist and also coordinates the Syrian Centre for the Media and Freedom of Expression. Ironically, she was en route to a workshop in Amman on freedom of information in the Arab world.
Two days ago, bloggers and filmmakers were hauled before the courts, and many others remain in detention. Others have been tortured, and some have died in detention.
Others on the list are:
- Qais Abatili, a very active netizen who was arrested on September 25.
- Nizar Al-Baba, an online activist who has been held since September 21.
- Jehad Jamal, a blogger better known by the blog name “Milan,” who was arrested on August 8 and then again on October 14.
- Nizar Adleh, a journalist who contributes to many websites. He has been held since September 6.
- Miraal Brourda, a writer and poet who contributes to many websites.
- Ahmed Bilal, a producer for Falesteen TV who was arrested in the Damascus suburb of Mo’adamieh on September 13.
- Amer Matar, a journalist with the daily Al-Hayat who was arrested on September 4. This was his second arrest.
- Alwan Zouaiter, a journalist who has written for many Lebanese dailies. He was arrested by intelligence officials in the northern city of Raqqah after returning from Libya. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly contacting the Syrian opposition while abroad. The sentence was subsequently reduced to 13 months.
- Omar Abdel Salam Abd Qabani, a netizen arrested on August 8.
- Ammar Sa’ib, a netizen arrested on August 1 in Damascus.
- Mohamed Tahan Jamal, a member of the League of Arab Writers and Union of Journalists, who was arrested on July 20 after signing the “Aleppo Appeal for the Nation.”
- Abd Al-Majid Tamer and Mahmoud Asem Al-Mohamed, two journalists working for Kurdish news websites who were arrested on May 31.
- Manaf Al Zeitoun, who was arrested on March 25. There has been no news of him since his arrest.
- Sami Al-Halabi, who, according to some sources, was released on August 17.
- Zouheir Al-Mihsan, who writes for the daily Al-Kassiun. He was reportedly arrested on March 16. He may have been released on October 6.
All of these are guilty of nothing worse than informing the public about the actions of their government, and they have done so knowing the risk to their safety. They deserve continued international awareness and support, and most of all continuous pressure on the Assad regime to back down.