22 September 2010

Young blogger detained for nine months; IFEX members report on President's abysmal rights record

A 19-year-old high school student and blogger has been detained incommunicado by Syrian intelligence services for nine months, report the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This year, both the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights Watch commented that after a decade of rule by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, conditions for free expression have not improved, with the government imprisoning critical reporters and carrying out Internet filtering.

On 27 December 2009, Tal al-Mallouhi was summoned for interrogation about her blog entries, and has been held without charge ever since. Members of state security confiscated her computer, CDs and books from her home. ANHRI has urged the President to reveal her detention location, release her or declare the charges against her and put her through a fair trial. In Cairo, police prevented ANHRI representatives and organisers of a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy from delivering a letter to the Ambassador on 19 September calling for al-Mallouhi's release.

She kept three blogs in which she criticised Arab and Syrian international policy and the Union for the Mediterranean, a partnership between the European Union and Mediterranean basin countries. Syrian activists are concerned that she may have been detained over a poem she wrote criticising restrictions on freedom of expression in Syria.

At least five journalists and netizens are currently detained in Syria. In 2009, CPJ named Syria number three on a list of the 10 worst countries in which to be a blogger based on the arrests, harassments and restrictions that online writers have faced.

In a July 2010 letter to President al-Assad, CPJ asked for the release of Ali al-Abdallah, a freelance journalist being held despite finishing a 30-month prison sentence for a critical article he wrote while in prison. CPJ also called for criminal charges to be dropped against investigative journalists Bassam Ali and Suhaila Ismail.

CPJ asked for the President to amend the country's Press Law. Currently, the Press Law requires all private publications to be licensed by the government, and applications can be rejected if the proposed publication is seen as threatening the country's "national interest." Also, the minister of information has unlimited powers to decide who is and is not a journalist and who can obtain a press card.

Journalists are often charged under broad anti-state provisions in the Penal Code based on "acts, writings, or speech unauthorised by the government that expose Syria to the danger of belligerent acts or that disrupt Syria's ties with foreign states."

Human Rights Watch released a 35-page report in July, "A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad's First Ten Years in Power," detailing a bleak record on restrictions on freedom of expression. The report says censorship is widespread and extends to websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Blogger, while filtering of political websites is pervasive. The ministry of information vets all newspapers prior to distribution. Syria's two private daily newspapers covering political topics that have stayed open are owned by businessmen closely tied to the regime.

Related stories on ifex.org

Blogger held incommunicado for over eight months 16 September 2010
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