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Mideast Syria Explosion

Since March, 2011, nearly 100 Syrian journalists, bloggers, writers and commentators have been harassed, detained – or they disappeared altogether. A new report by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), “Crackdown on Media Workers in Syria,” details dozens of violations over the past nine months, detailing 117 separate incidents.

Mazen Darwich is Director of the SCM, which was established in 2004. The Center was shut down by the government in 2009, but this has not discouraged it from continuing its mission. Darwich says that the Syrian press has always been restricted under Bashar al-Assad, but with the coming of the Arab Spring, the regime declared all-out “war” on the media.  SCM reports that in late March of this year, Buthaina Sha’ban, Assad’s political and media advisor, announced to the domestic and international press, “Since the events are currently taking place in Syria, only the Syrian state TV can report the truth, and no one else.”

According to the SCM report, the first documented arrest was that of Saber Darwish, a journalist from Damascus, who was picked up during a demonstration at the Al-Hamidiyyeh market on March 15. During his detention, he was whipped and tortured by electric shock, and subjected to the so-called “German Chair” treatment – a type of physical manipulation on a folding metal chair, which stretches and arches the prisoner’s back so far that it makes even breathing excruciatingly painful. Poet Faraj Bayrakdar was subjected to the “Chair” back in the 1980s, and would later tell the advocacy group NOW Lebanon that he was unable to walk normally for three years afterwards.

The SCM report also documents the cases of fourteen journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters who have simply vanished; six of them have been missing for more than two months. Among them is Mohammad Jamal al-Tahhan, a reporter for Syria’s Tishreen newspaper and a member of both the Syrian Journalists Union and the Arab Writers Union. Fifty-four years old and a father of four children, al-Tahhan was arrested on unspecified grounds at his Aleppo home last July and has never been heard from since.

Collecting information on these cases is challenging, says Darwich. “We get the information in the first place from complaints received directly to the center from journalists and bloggers and through daily monitoring of violations,” Darwich said.

SCM members also monitor traditional and social media networks for information about missing or detained journalists, then, working with rights lawyers, attempt to verify the incidents.

“We face many problems in our work,” Darwich said. “Most importantly, the Syrian authorities deny the occurrence of arrests or the presence of these journalists in prison.”

Darwich also says the cases they have managed to verify may represent only the tip of the iceberg. “We have a lot of cases that we have not covered at the request of owners or families,” he said.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem is Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He says that the SCM report concurs with his organization’s findings – although, he points out, the two groups differ in their definitions of what constitutes a journalist. He also points out that many of the arrests detailed by the SCM have not been strictly related to journalism; some media workers were arrested simply for taking part in demonstrations against the regime.

Abdel Dayem says there has been absolutely no let-up in media oppression in Syria, despite a new media freedom law announced by Bashar al-Assad last August and the recent agreement with the Arab League, which called for opening up Syria to international media.

“I am not aware of any journalists that have gotten government approval to enter,” Abdel Dayem said. “I know of a few, about a handful, either individual journalists or media organizations that have announced their intent to apply or have applied or are in the process of applying for permission. I haven’t heard of the government approving any of those requests – or denying any of them either, for that matter.”

The SCM and other Syrian media groups are urging the international community to highlight the plight not just of journalists in Syria, but all Syrian citizens who are presumed to have been arrested, detained or vanished at the hands of the security apparatus of Assad’s regime.

Cecily Hilleary

Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.

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