When Syria's computer-savvy president Bashar al-Assad took office, some expected it to usher in a new era of freedom of expression, at least online. Six years and a war in Iraq later, World Politics Watch editor Guy Taylor went to Syria to assess the online environment there.
Listen to Guy Taylor's interview with Syrian telecomminications minister Amr Salem.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In a speech this week, President Bush again accused Iran and Syria of supporting the Iraqi insurgency and is unlikely to ever sit down with the leaders of those countries. But according to the AP, the Syrian government wants to engage with Washington and hopes that the new Congress will push for talks. If the White House ever does talk, it will have to be with the administration of Bashar al-Assad, who assumed the presidency in 2000, following his father's three decades in the job.
When the young Assad ascended, he promised to make Syria, quote, "a contemporary and progressive society." But six years and a war in Iraq later, Syria doesn't seem to have progressed much.
Guy Taylor, international news editor for the online World Politics Watch, went to Damascus to see if the Syrian Internet could serve as a gauge to test whether freedom really is on the march. He wrote in the current issue of Reason magazine that the gauge is delivering ambiguous readings.
Consider the following remark made to Taylor by Syria's minister of telecommunications and technology Amr Nazir Salem. AMR NAZIR SALEM: We're moving towards opening up much more than closing down. Two things are not allowed. One is anything that ignites ethnic unrest. The second one is that if somebody goes with another country against his country - Syria is currently under attack, and if somebody writes, or publishes or whatever, something that supports the attack, there will be trial. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Guy, who is Amr Nazir Salem? GUY TAYLOR: Salem is the Syrian minister of telecommunications and technology. He's been in the job for about a year. And I believe that he went to high school with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president.
Salem has kind of an interesting story, because he worked in the United States for, I think, six or seven years as a senior programs manager for Microsoft. It's something of a coup that Bashar Assad brought him into this role, because Assad, prior to his father's death, had - the only really serious political role that he had had in Syria was as the head of something called the Syrian Computer Society, which is sort of a place for Baathists who are very excited about technology and computers to talk about ways that Syrian society might merge with telecommunications and the Internet. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds like Bashar al-Assad and Salem were both quite open to the West, and yet Salem's comment, as we heard it, suggests that they haven't exactly imbibed the notion that the Internet should be a riot of free speech. GUY TAYLOR: Absolutely. Salem, I got the sense that he understands very well that a fully open media would open the window for very aggressive public challenges to Bashar Assad's regime. And I use the term "regime" carefully, because it is a Mafia-style dictatorship. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nevertheless, you do suggest that there is some ambiguity there. It isn't all bad. And, in fact, you say that it appeared that things might be opening up a bit before the war in Iraq. GUY TAYLOR: Well, prior to the U.S. invasion, there was definitely a period known as the Damascus Spring, in which Assad's government allowed for websites to open and cover local news with criticism of the government, as well as a handful of private magazines.
When it became clear that the United States would invade Iraq, the Assad government began holding its cards a little closer to its chest, and, definitely working from the fear that total chaos could break out in Iraq and spread to Syria, began clamping down on private media and free flow of information on websites. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's unpack the nature of Syrian Internet censorship. You suggest that it takes place on a variety of levels. There's a certain amount of self-censorship on the part of writers. There are Web filters. You wrote that all websites from Israel are blocked. GUY TAYLOR: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So to some degree, pressure is put on both sides of the information flow, on what the people post on the Internet as well as what they can access. Right? GUY TAYLOR: Absolutely. There's something of a culture of fear that exists among young users, because stories and rumors swirl about people disappearing or being arrested for posting political things on blogs.
So young users will make their blogs apolitical or not political, or they'll be careful, for instance, to include a map on the blog that shows Syria without the presence of Israel, just to make it clear to a government censor that while this is a website that might have some critical views, but it's obviously someone who understands or appreciates Syrian nationalism in the respect of denying the existence of Israel. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I thought one of the most chilling aspects of the story that you present is the fact that there aren't any rules. Then you really do have to impose a kind of extreme discipline on yourself, and that smacks of the worst kind of totalitarianism. GUY TAYLOR: Absolutely. Any Web user or journalist always will have it in the back of their mind that if they aren't paying very close attention to the whims of the government, and what could be considered forbidden material, that they could find themselves in a great deal of trouble very quickly. So for that reason, people definitely embrace a degree of self-censorship. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, to sum up, the Internet is not going to usher in an age of freedom of speech and access to information in Syria. GUY TAYLOR: At the same time, people are excited about the possibility that there's more information available about what's happening in Syria and the region, and they've also got an online forum through blogs and chat rooms to talk about it publicly without even giving their identity.
I think there's a great deal of hope and optimism involved in bringing this technology to the masses. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Guy, thank you very much. GUY TAYLOR: Thank you for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Guy Taylor is an editor for the Web daily, World Politics Watch. To hear his entire interview with Amr Nazir Salem, visit onthemedia.org. His story, After the Damascus Spring, is in the February issue of Reason magazine.