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Media War Blurs Picture in Syria

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Jun 1 2011 (IPS) - Since pro-democracy protests began over two months ago, Syria has been engaged in a fierce media war – with journalists arrested and international press banned from entering the country. This has severely curtailed the flow of information out of the country.

“There is no independent press in Syria,” says Human Rights Watch Director Nadim Houry. “And journalists apprehended by authorities are held in complete isolation and forced to remain incommunicado,” he told IPS in Beirut.

The deteriorating state of journalism in Syria has placed the country among the worst in the world – in terms of freedom of the press. As a result of the information vacuum, the media is forced to depend on eyewitness accounts and second-hand reports.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), about 20 local and international journalists have been physically assaulted, detained, or expelled from Syria since the start of the country’s popular uprising on Mar. 15.

“All foreign journalists are turned away at the borders,” says a taxi driver talking to IPS on condition of anonymity. “Any person carrying a pocket camera will automatically raise the suspicions of Syrian custom agents.”

Dorothy Parvaz, an online reporter for Al Jazeera English, arrived in Syria on Apr. 29. She was detained by an unidentified security service for six days and denied any contact with the outside world. On May 4, authorities admitted she was in custody and shortly thereafter, an Al Jazeera spokesperson announced that they had received information that she had been deported and was being held in Tehran. News of her release was made public on May 18.

Parvaz was dragged by her hair, handcuffed and imprisoned with other people, reports the Al Jazeera website. She describes hearing “interrogations and beatings taking place about 10 metres away”.

“The beatings were savage,” Parvaz says, “those being hit were crying out, ‘Wallahi!’ (I swear to God).” Similar grizzly accounts of tortured prisoners were reported by Khaled Sid Mohand, an Algerian journalist working for the French newspaper Le Monde, in an interview with L’Express magazine.

Ghadi Frances, a journalist for the Lebanese daily As-Safir, was also detained in Damascus on May 7 for a day. “I was arrested because I was reporting on a Friday in areas where demonstrations were taking place,” Frances told IPS. “However, intelligence services treated me very politely as soon as they discovered I was a journalist.”

Fayiz Sara, a contributor to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, was arrested on Apr. 11 and released last week according to the CPJ. Syrian officials detained Mohamed Zayd Mastou, a correspondent for Al- Arabiya, on Apr. 6. Akram Darwish, a freelance photographer, has been detained in Qamishli in northeastern Syria since May 3. There is no information regarding the current status of Mastou or Darwish.

Ghassan Saoud, a contributor to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar and the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, was detained and beaten by plainclothes police before being released in Damascus.

A total of five Reuters employees were either arrested and released, or expelled from Syria over the past two months – as have two Jordanian journalists.

“It’s unfair that the Syrians are getting away with this. So many high ranking people intervened for my release that I am not free to speak on the matter,” says an Arab journalist imprisoned by Syrian intelligence services, who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity.

Internally, Syrian journalists whose reports differ from the official government line are forced to resign or are brought in for interrogation, stresses Houry.

“This was the case of local journalist Samira Masalmeh,” he points out. Masalmeh, who was the editor of the state-run newspaper Tishrin, was fired after giving an interview to Al Jazeera – in which she held security forces responsible for the violence in Daraa.

As a result of the strict restrictions on media organisations operating in Syria, journalists stationed in neighbouring Lebanon are having a very hard time producing detailed coverage.

“When I was reporting this month from Syria, I discovered that many reports published by wires about possible demonstrations were completely inaccurate,” underscores Frances.

Such inaccuracies will continue until freedom of the press is granted in the country. Until then, intimidation, violence and incarceration will further blur the picture of what is really happening in Syria.

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