A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

running hurdles: Syria’s private media

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 16, 2006

Hugh, an acquaintance from Damascus, has a piece on current private media initiatives in Syria on irinnews.org, the UN’s humanitarian affairs’ news service. Its worth reprinting in full, and … since its the UN … raises no copyright issues:

Syria: private media hurdle bureaucracy to break new ground

[granted the title is quite awkward, but Hugh is British]

DAMASCUS, 16 Nov 2006 (IRIN) – It’s not easy being Waddah Abed Rabbo, editor-in-chief of Syria’s first private political newspaper, launched earlier this month.

Once punishing taxes, printing press shortages and the notoriously tricky editorial red lines of this media restrictive state had all been successfully negotiated, Abed Rabbo was left with a problem closer to home: convincing the staff of Al-Watan (Arabic for ‘homeland’) that his newly launched paper was not about to fold.

“The major problem we have is not with staff capabilities but simply in convincing them that the paper will not close down,” said the burly editor-in-chief of Al-Watan. The daily paper made history on 5 November when it became the first private political newspaper to be published since the start of Ba’ath party rule in Syria 43 years ago.

“I am confident we will not close because I have learned very clearly in Syria that to succeed you must not let the government catch you in paperwork,” Abed Rabbo said.

Only a few days before Al-Watan’s launch, Syria’s Information Minister ordered the closure of the country’s first private satellite channel, Sham TV. This came just five weeks after the station began broadcasting from outside Damascus and on the very day its first news bulletin was to be shown.

Rumours abounded around Syrian media circles that Sham TV had been censored on political grounds, due either to its perceived Islamist leanings, or the hard-hitting drama about official corruption that it had been screening or even to make way for a rival channel being set up by a businessman with close links to President Bashar al-Assad.

The reality, said Mamoun Bouni, director of Sham TV, was that paperwork over broadcasting rights, rather than politics over programming, had led to the problem.

“There was a misunderstanding. We had obtained initial permission from the Information Ministry to begin broadcasting from outside Damascus, but we were then required to move into the free zone in Damascus,” said Bouni, referring to a economically liberal business park in the Syrian capital set up to promote new businesses.

Syrian media experts say bureaucracy, rather than the censor’s pen, is the new ‘big brother’ of a sector once rigidly controlled by the state, but which has seen the gradual opening of private media since the rise to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000.

“We [Sham TV] are the pioneer and the sacrificial lamb. It has been difficult but now everyone can follow our lead,” said Bouni. “The Information Ministry has not tried to impose its opinion on us and they have even encouraged us to broadcast news, which we will do according to what is important, not which minister received which official.”

Bouni said Sham TV would be back on air by the end of the month and that the off-air time had cost the station some US $4m.

Media in Syria

Prior to the launch of Al-Watan, a 16-page broadsheet, Syria had only four daily newspapers – Al-Thawra; Al Ba’ath; Tishreen and the English-language Syria Times – all state-owned. The country also has around 150 private magazines.

Al-Watan’s daily print run of 35,000 is just over half that of Al Thawra, the largest state paper, but Abed Rabbo said he aimed to print 120,000 copies from a new printing press within six months.

Sham TV remains the only private satellite channel, though the Information Ministry is considering license applications from 24 other private channels. Syrian state television employs 4,000 staff, produces two domestic channels, one satellite channel and one radio station.

A handful of professional news websites such as SyriaNews and All4Syria, are accompanied by numerous individual blog websites, some becoming censored by authorities. This has led the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders this year to label Syria as one of the world’s “15 internet enemies”.

Though Syria’s decades-old Publishing Law remains linked to the country’s 43-year-old emergency laws – allowing for the prosecution of journalists who are deemed to have breached national security – media heads said stifling bureaucracy and heavy taxes were their primary concern.

Outside the free zone, private media are required to pay 25 percent of all advertising to the state-run Arab Advertising Organisation (AAO), as well as a 40 percent tax to the state monopoly Syrian Company for Distribution (SCD).

Inside the free zone, where Al-Watan and Sham TV are located, companies must pay taxes to the AAO only for Syrian advertisements or foreign advertisements that mention a Syrian name. Taxes to the SCD remain the same.

Though bureaucracy and lack of legislative clarity remain significant hurdles to private media, both Abed Rabbo and Bouni said new found political freedoms left them hopeful for the future of the fledgling sector.

“I have a dream to give parliament its role,” said Abed Rabbo, whose second edition of Al-Watan led with a story about parliamentary dissatisfaction with the government. “I want to say to MPs: ‘You can do it.’ The president has given them the authority to criticise ministers but they don’t know how to.”

http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=56392&SelectRegion=Middle_East&SelectCountry=SYRIA

Friends of mine work at another publication housed in the Free Zone – an English-language monthly (or monthly-ish) called Syria Today. The first time I mentioned ST to some other friends – diplomats and professionals working in tourism and finance – they pooh-poohed it. by last spring, however, their opinions had changed. each told me that they now read the magazine regularly, primarily for its business and political analyses.

Even Syria Today, with its limited English-language audience and relative lack of government oversight, earns the ire of the Ministry of Information from time to time. The current issue was banned – the copies available now were reprinted, with the offending news item removed. Writing in the more accessible Arabic language, Abed Rabbo will be subjected to more severe oversight..

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