First Published: 2006-03-14

 
Syria's cyber rebels outfox government
 

They cross all red lines, they attack security apparatus, military intelligence, even officials in presidential palace.

 

Middle East Online

'There are no more taboos'

DAMASCUS - Syria's Internet has emerged as the vehicle for the bold voice of dissent in Damascus, where the state regularly exercises censorship and stifles domestic criticism.

The electronic media has pushed the envelope of what is acceptable but at a heavy price.

Savvy cyber rebels who have broadened the political debate could be preyed upon at any time and thrown in jail for proselytizing to Syria's burgeoning Internet audience, thought to number more than 500,000 people.

The most provocative site online is All4Syria, run by Ayman Abdel Nur, himself a member of the Baath party and a childhood friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since starting his website in May 2003, the Syrian government has on occasion shut down Nur's site and he has resorted to sending his digest of his own writings and news articles about Syria from around the world by email.

Nur told Human Rights Watch in its November 2005 report, "False Freedom: Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa", that his digest's readership had ballooned to 16,000.

"We cross all the red lines. We attack the security apparatus, military intelligence, even officials in the presidential palace. There are no more taboos."

Despite petty harassment, Nur has avoided punishment at the hand of Syria's security apparatus, perhaps because of his long ties to Assad.

He believes his acidic commentary will help rescue the Baath regime from corruption and incompetence.

He told Human Rights Watch his aim is "to promote the sense of freedom of speech, to open dialogue. It strengthens the community. When people see that they can participate in the dialogue, they will defend their society."

Another website, called Champress, provides critical articles that would never make it on the pages of staid state-run papers like Tishrin, Al-Baath and Al-Thawra. A recent dispatch told of Damascus students carrying Syrian flags beating democracy activists.

But the path is fraught for Syria's web daredevils. A blogger named Ammar Abd al-Hamid finally quit the country last September for the United States after dogged harassment by authorities over his scathing commentary on his site amarji.blogspot.com, better known as "A Heretic's Blog."

Now, Hamid lobs his barbs from the safety of Silver Spring, Maryland.

A recent column on March 9 lampooned Assad.

"In his recent declarations, the president, true to his moronic form, has made it quite clear that as the country's isolation increases, it is the people who will suffer, not the country's corrupt officialdom," Hamid wrote.

If Hamid had not departed Damascus, he could have ended up like a handful of Internet pundits who have been locked up in the last five years.

A Syrian-Kurdish journalist student, Massud Hamdu, has been incarcerated since July 2003 for posting pictures on the Internet of Kurdish children demonstrating outside the Damascus offices of UN children's agency UNICEF.

Democracy activist Habib Salih has been held since last May by Syria's security apparatus for posting letters online which described his previous stints in prison for championing democracy.

Even venturing online to view controversial sites can prove dangerous. Human Rights Watch reports Internet cafes in Damascus are filled with intelligence agents peering at screens.

Nevertheless, authorities have failed to shut the Internet's floodgates. Since Assad came to power in 2000, after a brief thaw in censorship standards, the government effectively muzzled the phenomenon of political salons and outspoken newspapers.

But the Internet has proved difficult to stop. By email, chat rooms and blogging, dissidents usually keep one step ahead of the state.

To access sites blocked by the government, surfers sometimes latch on to Lebanese and Jordanian service providers or so-called cloaking software that disguises their identity and location.

"There are so many web sites, so many emails, they (the state)... can't keep up with us," rights activist Aktham Naissa told Human Rights Watch.

 

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