State crackdowns on Freedom of Expression in Syria

Syrians started to have access to the Internet service in 2000.The Syrian Telecommunication Establishment and the Syrian Computer Society are the two institutions responsible for organizing and controlling Syrian citizens’ participation in the international network of local suppliers for the service.

The number of Internet users in Syria grew to 30,000 in 2000 and has since doubled to more than 60,000 users. This increase was due to the entry of private companies,  which were about 11 Internet providers. The first one, “AYA.” started providing services by the end of 2005. Those companies offered prepaid cards that could be purchased from any library or locations providing place of mobile phones and Internet connections.

Acknowledging the rising numbers of Internet users, Syrian authorities started to rely on a set of restrictive laws and illegal measures to suppress Syrians’ right to freely access and disseminate information on the Internet.

Although freedom of opinion is protected in the Syrian constitution and no law prevents publishing and blogging on the Internet, security forces in Syria continue to follow-up, spy on and arrest Internet users who dare to criticize the system or existing policy undertaken by the Assad’s regime.

The ‘executive authorities’ interfered with the Internet in Syria by using surveillance, filtration as well as filtering of electronic, humanitarian and cultural news sites, especially those related to Syria. The Syrian government-controlled the Internet in order to suppress freedom of expression and to track Syrian people who criticize the government or speak on political or social issues.

Using the state of emergency law imposed in 1963, Syrian authorities have undertaken arbitrary arrests and violated fundamental liberties, such as freedom of expression, against of people who try to oppose government policies.

Since 2011, bloggers, and especially university students were most expressed concerned with over these arrests. Advocates were was taken into detention for days without trials, which led the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to classify the Syrian regime among ‘the top ten’ most oppressive regimes in the world regarding arrest and harassment of bloggers.

Since 2005, the Syrian government has adopted a new strategy to support and encourage websites that are supportive of the regime. These websites work on publishing information that praises the Syrian government as an attempt to make the official version of the events more convincing. In the same vein, these websites also rely on the official Syrian news agency “SANA” and other Syrian newspapers close to the regime as sources.

On February 18, 2007, the Syrian authorities censored famous social media networks, claiming that they enabled foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate Syrian society. This censorship policy was increased at the end of 2008.SeveralSyrian, Arab and international websites, such as YouTube, Skype, Wikipedia, Amazon, and BlogSpot, were censored.

The charges held against online activists differ according to the mood of the police. Some are accused of penetrating banned access websites while others are accused of “online chatter” These charges are usually accompanied by the confiscation of activists’ computers while they go to State Security or military courts.

These are some charges that could be held against bloggers:
  • The obtaining of confidential information that threat the country security.
  • The endeavor of illegal writings that expose Syrians to hostile acts.
  • The endeavor of illegal writings that affect Syrian diplomatic relations with foreign countries.
  • The publication of false news and information.

On February 20, 2006, the Syrian authorities invaded the home of online activist Tarek Alghorani. They confiscated his computer and arrested him because of his activities against Assad’s regime. Alghorani was sentenced to seven years in prison in SAIDNAYA for presumably disseminating information responsible for state deference and hostile acts against Syria. Physical and mental tortures were his daily bread for seven years. He was released on June, 2011.

Since February 2011, Bashar al-Assad's regime tried to maneuver pre-emptive actions to ease popular frustrations. The censorship was gradually removed from some websites, such as Facebook and YouTube. It was the first time that Syrian’s were allowed to access those sites without resorting to proxy programs.

Acknowledging the importance of these procedures, Syrian decided to organize demonstrations against Assad’s regime by circulating information on social media networks. However, the calls for demonstrations did not succeed in attracting Syrian people.

Over the weeks of calls over the Internet for demonstrations, Assad’s regime reinforced the control of online expression and focused on its opponents. The result was a tremendous campaign of daily arrests in homes and Internet cafés. Hundreds of online activists were arrested because of comments or publications on websites and social media against the regime.In addition, several journalists and bloggers were kidnaped and tortured in prison.

On February 16, 2012, the Syrian Intelligence Forces raided the Center for Media and Freedom of Expression’s office in Damascus and arrested the entire crew including the Syrian blogger Hussein Greer who has already been detained on October 10, 2011 and released on December 1st, 2012. Eight members of this center are now under military trial accused of “dissemination of banned publications”.

In 2014, the government decided to censor the Internet system temporarily. Nevertheless the blocking was lifted every Friday, as it is the demonstration’s day. It is a day where protesters went out into streets to demonstrate against Assad’s regime. These demonstrations were recorded in order to be broadcast, but the access to it was still slow.

This procedure was repeated in all locations to prevent the download and sharing of videos filmed during the demonstrations. Some areas such as Homs were known for their rigid opposition to the regime. Homs faced a complete interruption of Internet and communications. In the same year, Syria occupied the second place in countries considered “enemies of the Internet and freedom of expression”.
2014 2013 2012  
Not Free Not Free Not Free Internet Freedom Status
25 24 23 Obstacles to Access (0-25)
26 25 25 Limits on Content (0-35)
37 36 35 Violations of User Rights (0-40)
88 85 83 Total (0-100)*
(By Freedom House)                                                                       * 0= most free,  100= least free