DAMASCUS // With the Syrian government poised to issue a new law on internet publishing, civil society groups, website administrators and journalists are hoping for increased legal rights but fear they will be straitjacketed by tight restrictions. For the past two years, the Syrian authorities have been designing regulations to cover domestic internet news, which has long been operating in a legislative limbo. The absence of rules allowed dozens of independent websites to spring up between 2003 and 2005, and they quickly became a highly popular alternative to traditional state-run media.
Characterised by a to-the-point modern writing style and a willingness to publish what had previously been considered unpublishable, including criticism of government policies, personalities and gossip, the sites grew in number and influence. That brought with it greater official scrutiny, however, and, as the authorities struggled to keep up with internet development, new forms of ad-hoc control were introduced. The telecommunications ministry increasingly blocked sites and web administrators complained of being told to take down stories that touched on sensitive issues.
In the absence of a legal framework, the websites had no way of contesting increasing censorship or knowing what was and was not permitted. Faced with such difficulties, some news sites voluntarily closed, some moved abroad - to publish without restrictions - and others considerably watered down their coverage. For its part, the government accused online news outlets of lacking professionalism, saying they published wild and unsubstantiated rumours, failed to check their facts and never had anyone willing to accept responsibility for mistakes.
"It would be healthy to have a law if it makes the publisher check their information properly, if it makes someone responsible for the news they put up," said Khalid Mousa, who worked on the pioneering Syria-News website, which became a training ground for young Syrian journalists. "It would also be nice for sites to have a legal status - a legal safety net - and for them to have more clarity about the rules. At the moment it's for the ministry of telecommunications to block websites," he said. "There is never any justification if a site is closed, it just shuts and no reason is given. Some sites are closed for a while but reopen, others are blocked altogether and it's unclear why."
No details of the e-publishing law have been formally released. Imad Sabouni, the minister of communications and technology, said in April that legislation had been finalised but made no further remarks. Some commentators have speculated the law will be liberal, with a voluntary licensing system, legal protection for website staff and a right to journalists' credentials for online reporters. "There is no law that can squeeze or limit the freedom of the internet," said Taleb Kadi Amin, a former deputy information minister who now heads the Arab States Broadcasting Union in Damascus. He is a vocal critic of the formal media sector, both government-run and privately owned, and believes the internet has brought a new vibrancy and relevance to news in Syria.
"Let's take the worst-case scenario," Mr Amin said. "If you need a licence for a Syrian domain and can't get it, or it involves difficult laws, people will just go and get a dotcom domain and there is no Syrian law that can control that. "The main target of the law should not be to limit. It should be to organise the process. There is no way to control the media as if you are living in the eastern block during the Cold War, that is not possible. There is no government in the world that can control it."
An increasing number of websites in Syria are subject to a government blocks, including Facebook, blogs and serious news sites. Despite that, technology-savvy Syrians find little problem in bypassing restrictions. "You can block a site and anyone will work out how to see it in five minutes," Mr Amin said. "Facebook is banned but it's one of the most popular sites in Syria. Everyone in Syrian society must understand the process of media has changed, and that means there is no room for the same mentality of control."
His optimism is far from universally shared, however, and unconfirmed reports say the new law calls for mandatory licensing for websites, with no right to appeal against refusals, and strict advertising rules. Punishments could include three-year prison sentences and prohibitively heavy fines - up to US$20,000 (Dh73,456). Such terms and conditions have been described as "an emergency law for the internet" by civil-society activists, referring to the decades-old decree that gives the Syrian authorities sweeping powers of arrest and detention, far beyond those contained in the constitution. Ostensibly in place because of Syria's on-going war with Israel, the emergency laws have become a tool for quashing internal dissent.
"Some are saying the new laws will be very hard, but we have no formal indication of what they will contain so we wait with interest to see," said Mazen Darwich, the founder of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, an unlicensed advocacy group that had its offices closed by the authorities last year. "Instinctively I don't want any law for the internet - it should be a free space - but in Syria there is a need. What is important is that we want a legal framework to prevent the weakening of the web and web publishing. We would like to see laws that safeguard the independence and rights of internet sites."
Mr Mousa, the online journalist, said he feared the new law would be as restrictive as print publishing rules. "Many editors of websites think any law will just squeeze them and limit their freedoms. It will legalise them, yes, but it will restrict their development in the process," he said. "That is a real concern. But, if it's a modern law, if it's a clear law that lays out people's duties and their rights well, then of course it will get support."
The Obama administration last month called on Syria to improve internet freedoms, after US officials and leading business executives from Microsoft, Dell and Cisco Systems met with the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, in Damascus. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org