Monday, April 25, 2011

The protests in Syria and the media

Syrian activists are fighting for democracy, but the outside world doesn’t get to hear much about it. The regime cracks down hard on any attempt at communication. This weekend  at least 120 people were killed.


Last week Syrian protesters made a dramatic appeal to the Arabic TV channel Al Jazeera to devote more attention to events in the country. But there’s a reason for the lack of reporting. It’s virtually impossible for journalists to work in Syria.

For one thing, the regime does its best to obstruct journalists. And at the same time ordinary people – whether out of loyalty or fear – talk about activists in the same terms as state television uses. At least, that’s if you can manage to talk to any ordinary people. When we, Ozlem and I, last year tried  to talk with a taxi driver in Aleppo, he simple said that everything was milk and honey in Syria. Yes, our of fear!
De facto: ''you are under pretty heavy pressure, because in principle anyone you talk to can get into a lot of trouble. It’s a worry that leaves you paralysed.”

Syria is ruled with an iron fist by President Bashar al-Assad, aided by a feared security apparatus represented at all levels of society. The protests, which started a month ago in the capital Damascus and spread to other cities, are unparalleled in the country.

The state of emergency imposed in 1963 will not officially have been lifted until President Assad has given his formal assent. But still people are taking to the streets to protest against corruption, poor socio-economic conditions and the secret police, in the hope that their call for democracy will be heard, says Dutch ambassador Dolf Hogewoning in Damascus. And their numbers are growing.
“People are seeing an opportunity to make their voices heard, and increasingly they’re getting the impression they can take to the streets without immediately being severely punished, as they would have been until recently. It’s been going on for a month, and for Syria extremely unusual things have been happening. In general you can say people have thrown off some of their fear.”

The courage has a price. Since the start of the uprising at least 300 people have been killed. Many more have been arrested or have disappeared. During protests in Homs at the beginning of this week an unknown number of people were killed when the security forces opened fire on thousands of protesters.
Last Wednesday it was announced that Syrian dissident Mahmoud Issa had been arrested by the political security service for reporting on events in his city for Al Jazeera.
Syrians expect the West to do more than just condemn the violence, says Marjolein Wijninckx of Dutch peace group IKV-Pax Christi.
“You could think about suspending certain cooperation agreements. For example, between the European Union and Syria there’s the European Neighbourhood Policy. Under the terms of this agreement Syria gets 40 million euros a year. And other countries also have agreements they could suspend.”

There’s no comparison between Syrian activism and Egypt’s mass revolution. It’s not clear how much support there is for the protestors – there are no opinion polls in Syria. The majority of the population say nothing and stay at home. But the Syrian president may well enjoy more support than his former Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak did.
The regime appears to be willing to lift the state of emergency. But Mr Hogewoning says he wonders how much freedom this will bring. Protestors will still need a permit, the ambassador says.
“What they give with one hand they can take away with the other.”
It will be interesting to see how Erdogan will act if Syria 'falls' and Iran will follow as the current AKP government has politically invested heavenly in these countries.... 

Day opening - April 25

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