Shortly after I arrived in Damascus last June, Amr Nazir Salem, the minister of telecommunications and technology, told me that champress.net would be “a great site to check out.” Champress was a locally produced independent news website—an example, he assured me, of Syria’s advances in media freedom. I took his advice as evidence that the site must be government propaganda. But my interest was piqued a few days later, when I attempted to visit it from one of the city’s many Internet cafés and found only a blank page.
It didn’t make sense. Salem had admitted that the Syrian authorities block websites—namely pro-Israel and hyper-Islamist ones, those run by the illegal Muslim Brotherhood, and those calling for autonomy for Syrian Kurds. But Champress, one of the very sites the government was recommending I visit? It was a small example of the paradoxes that abound in Syria, an authoritarian state whose government, which has long maintained ownership and control over the media, claims now to be intent on spreading information technology to the masses.
The last six years have seen an explosion of Internet use in Syria, with close to 1 million of the country’s 18 million people now online, compared to just 30,000 in 2000. Outside observers say the surge will continue, with Syrian users “projected to exceed 1.7 million by 2009,” according to a recent study by the Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group. Damascus writers are already churning out hundreds of blogs in English and Arabic as well as dozens of broader independent news-and-commentary sites like Champress. The websites are run from homes and from more than two dozen cyber-cafés, where it costs about $1 to spend an hour online.
The technology is advancing so quickly that it seems impossible for Syrian authorities to maintain their stranglehold on the free flow of local news and ideas. Yet the government’s obsession with manipulating the content of independent sites and its apparent desire to extend traditional media restrictions into cyberspace raise the question of whether the country’s rulers merely seek to use the Internet as a tool to enhance their own power.
The Syrian segment of the Web is a gauge for whether Bashar al-Assad is genuinely committed to building the “contemporary and progressive” society he described when he ascended to power after the 2000 death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria and its lone political party, the Ba’ath, for 31 years. Some observers are encouraged by the younger Assad’s interest in computers and his Western leanings: He is fluent in French and English, and his wife is a British-born woman of Syrian descent who was a Citibank investment banker when he met her while training as an ophthalmologist in London. But is the Internet really opening Syria’s public sphere to freer speech? Or is the government simply letting people speak up online as a means of identifying opposition figures and troublemakers? Six years into the reign of Bashar, who turned 41 in September, the gauge is delivering ambiguous readings.
A ‘Deal’ With the Government
Days after I was unable to access it, champress.net suddenly became available again. It turned out to be a daily aggregation of material from independent Arabic papers across the region, plus a mixture of original editorials and local news. It’s among the most popular news sites in Syria; according to its founder, Ali Jamalo, it receives about 30,000 visitors a day. Other popular sites use the same format, including syria-news.com and aljaml.com (“The Camel”). Each appears relatively balanced, though any serious opposition to Assad generally comes not in the form of news stories but as anonymous or pseudonymous comments from readers.
Some of the commenters openly bash the government. Last year a reader angry about government censorship used Champress to urge the country’s rulers to “Loosen your hold on peoples’ thoughts,” adding, “When are we going to talk about freedom and democracy and transparency?” More recently, the summer violence in Israel and Lebanon produced a flood of reader comments with a predictably anti-Israel slant—a position generally shared by Syrians whether or not they back Assad. Support for Hezbollah was also a theme, although it was presented more carefully than the anti-Israel material, with seldom a mention of the militant Lebanese Shiite party’s actual name. In a show of solidarity, they instead referred to it as the “resistance.”