Syria cracks down on the Internet

March 25, 2008 1:35:38 PM PDT
Syria is cracking down more on Internet use, imposing tighter monitoring of citizens who link to the Web, as well as jailing bloggers who criticize the government and blocking YouTube and other Web sites deemed harmful to state security. The tighter hand is coming even as Syrian officials show off a press center with fast Internet access and wireless technology for journalists covering this weekend's Arab League summit. The clampdown doesn't appear to be tied to the summit.

In recent days, authorities extended restrictions on Web use by requiring owners of Internet cafes to keep detailed logs of their customers, apparently to make it easier to track down anyone deemed to be a threat.

The rules, conveyed orally by security agents, require Internet cafes to record a client's full name, ID or passport number, the computer used and the amount of time spent on the device. The logs must be available to show to security agents upon demand.

"It's a new form of psychological pressure and part of the state's systematic intimidation of Internet users," said Mazen Darwish, a journalist who heads the independent Syrian Media Center.

"It works to a certain extent in the sense that it creates a kind of self-censorship among users," he told The Associated Press.

Darwish has been targeted in a crackdown on journalists. He was arrested in January as he reported on unrest over a murder in Adra, near Damascus, and is on trial before a military court for allegedly defaming state institutions. He faces up to a year in jail if convicted, he says.

President Bashar Assad, who succeeded his late father, Hafez Assad, in 2000, relaxed his father's iron grip a bit by introducing the Internet and cell phones. But he has also cracked down on dissent by jailing writers and democracy activists. Almost all print and broadcast media remain state-controlled.

In 2006, the group Reporters Without Borders ranked Syria among 13 "enemies of the Internet," calling it the Middle East's "biggest prison for cyber-dissidents."

According to the Syrian Media Center and other rights group, there are at least 153 Web sites blocked by Syrian authorities. They include sites run by the Syrian opposition, newspapers critical of the regime and networking and video-sharing sites.

Among the most popular are Facebook, which was blocked in late December, YouTube, Skype and Google's blogging engine.

Users who try to access online versions of the Lebanese anti-Syria newspapers An-Nahar and Al-Mustaqbal and the Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat get blank pages.

Lebanon's official Web site for slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri also is blocked. Lebanese political factions opposed to Syria's influence accuse Syria of being behind Hariri's assassination, a charge the Damascus denies.

The Syrian government does not comment on its Internet restrictions, but reports in Syrian media at the time Facebook was blocked said the ban was put in place to prevent Israeli users from infiltrating Syrian social networks.

Ahed al-Hindi, a 23-year-old who was hauled from an Internet cafe in handcuffs and a blindfold in late 2006 for criticizing the regime on an online forum, said security services often ask cafe owners to spy on clients, providing them with software for the task.

He was let go after spending a month in jail without trial, but left Syria three months later because of "nonstop harassment and intimidation" by security agents, he said.

"They made life impossible and I decided to leave the country," said al-Hindi, an economics student now living in Lebanon.

Rami al-Saadi, who manages an Internet cafe in Damascus, said it bothers him when security agents stop in to check on his business. "This is wrong. Of course I don't like it," he said.

Still, he said Syria has come a long way in just a few years, and believes it is progress that the Internet is now available in Syria.

"I remember only few years ago when we didn't even know what the Internet was," he said.

The New York-based activist group Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that around 1 million of Syria's 18 million people have online access, compared to just 30,000 in 2000.

"There is progress in the sense that it's become easier to be online," said Rasha Ibrahim, 24, a psychology graduate.

She also argued that government controls tend to backfire. "Everything forbidden becomes more tempting," she said.

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