The series of upheavals that swept the Middle East after the swift toppling down of the regime in Tunisia subsequently known as the “Arab Spring” started in Syria with yet another version of freedom of speech violations. Fifteen online activists were arrested and savagely beaten in Daraa province on February 26th, 2011. They have been unlawfully accused of writing anti-government slogans on the walls of their school.
The story spread and echoed through the whole country. It caused a great controversy and acted as a catalyst for mass uprisings to become more persistent and vocal while the government constantly denied the incident.
Later in the same year after events escalated and demonstrations were frequently reported in most parts of the country, social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were unblocked after being banned and blocked for over 6 years. The government decided to unblock access to these networks for the purpose of co-opting the ragged masses while giving them an alternative activity to participating in sit-ins and marching in demonstrations.
The opposition was the first to use social websites as a means to spread its thoughts and promote its political ideology by utilizing Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Within days of having the aforementioned sites unblocked, the sites were filled with opposition slogans demanding freedom and the removal of the ruling party.
Massive amounts of videos showing violent crackdowns on demonstrations taking place in different parts of the country were uploaded and shared to be viewed worldwide in a step meant to record the regime’s violations of human rights to garner international support. The government reacted by detecting those who uploaded the videos and participated in demonstrations activities and had them subsequently arrested.
The regime supporters, on the other hand, were prompted into action and sought to utilize social media in a counter-attack against pro-revolutionary groups. They uploaded materials that displayed the populace support for the regime in an attempt to exhibit more than one dimension for the turmoil in Syria. Soon enough, almost every citizen who had access to the Internet had at least one Facebook account.
This is how ‘Syrian Politics’ became incredibly polarized and people were divided into two groups challenging each other. Who will get more support and likes on their Facebook pages and posts?
Social networks suddenly became a new war zone as families and relationships were broken because of the polarized political war on Facebook that has led to a great deal of distress and social division among Syrians as mistrust, disbelief and disloyalty heavily set their roots and Syrians became very suspicious of each other. They accuse their friends and family members of having them reported to the Syrian authorities to be arrested.
As public safety largely decreased, youth began spending more and more time at home utilizing social media as an alternative place to gather with their friends. Those who wrote negatively about the government by calling out through their status for more demonstrations and overthrowing the government were arrested, badly beaten and sometimes even imprisoned for long periods of time under terribly inhuman conditions.
Yet the government’s resistance is not the only problem challenging freedom of speech. The newly- introduced masses to an opportunity of self-expression proved the regime's inability to listen or accept a different opinion, not just political but any opinion that concerns everyday life issues.
As for Twitter, very few Syrians that lived within the borders of their country had Twitter accounts. Twitter never gained that much of popularity in Syria, probably because it required access to internet which was, and still is, very expensive.
Mostly what was Tweeted about Syria was by expatriates and others who lived abroad, most of whom were not Syrian by nationality. Yet those Syrian Twitter users faced problems when attempting to cross the borders to their homeland. Judging by the density of their opposition tweets, they were questioned and interrogated right in the airport’s police department and arrested or left to enter the country.
Online freedom of expression in Syria was an issue that was rarely discussed among average citizens due to the authoritarian character of the regime, which imposed policies that permeate every aspect of life, making it preposterous for Syrians to even have a civil discussion among themselves that implies liberalizing speech in non-state-controlled media sources.
Free speech in Syria has always been viewed by the government as a grave threat to national security that goes in parallel with the interests of foreign agendas. As a result, those constraints perpetuated the suppression of freedom of speech in Syria, aggravating the frustration people had in having their opinion freely expressed as some of their peers in the region enjoy.
After several years of conflicts, the Syrian government still imposes restrictions on freedom of expression despite warning from the international community advising the Syrian authorities to support freedom of speech. Otherwise, it would consequently ensure further revolts in the remaining relatively small swaths of land where the government has its grip tightened and lead to further chaos destabilizing the already torn country.
Nevertheless, in spite of all warnings and the well-known and observed result of the suppression of freedom of expression in Non-Controlled Government Cities (NCGCs), the regime unceasingly persists with its suppressive policies, ignoring what already had caused disastrous effects on the nation.
Protecting freedom of speech in a country that is going under exceptionally difficult circumstances such as Syria would require years of hard work and the collaboration of civil society representatives with other actors in the scene with the support of government institutions themselves.
If the decision makers truly aspire for a better future for Syria, online freedom of expression should constitutionally be protected, as well as other civil liberties. The enactment of laws that ensure the participation of all components of the society in advancing the political process where censorship and surveillance coupled with online freedom of expression is an indispensable tool to secure a better future for Syria.