11/06/2010, 00.00
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Syrian government to step up internet censorship

This is the first law regulating online activities and enables the police access to editorial offices of Internet sites and to arrest journalists who violate censorship rules. One of the main sources of information in the nation it has so far enjoyed a limited freedom with respect to newspapers and television stations that instead undergo a strict state control.

Damascus (AsiaNews / Agencies) - In Syria, a law to regulate the web will allow police to penetrate Internet sites and to arrest journalists who violate the rules of censorship. Journalists say that it was approved by the government last week and is awaiting Parliamentary approval. They argue that the law could seriously limit the means of online media which today enjoy greater freedom of press. Although the Internet is often slow and access to websites often blocked for certain periods of time, previously there had been no existing law regulating online activities.

In recent years, the Internet has made great progress in Syria, becoming one of the main sources of information more so than newspapers and television stations which instead undergo a strict state control. News and reports on sensitive issues such as the prohibition in Syrian universities of wearing the niqab or veil, have had extensive coverage on the Internet, but were not touched on at all by print media. "The approval of the new law is " very serious, "says Ayman Abdel Nour, director of all4syria.org, a web site with editorial offices in Dubai, but with numerous collaborators in Syria. "It makes it possible for the police to enter editorial offices - he says -, arrest journalists and seized their computers. Those arrested can be dragged before a criminal court. " Although the law has yet to be approved by parliament, Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights (Sldhr), says that online censorship is worsening. For some time the government has targeted the websites of opposition parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurdish minority and human rights groups, but also regarded as politically hostile other websites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. To date, about 240 sites have been closed by the authorities. Last July, the Association for Press Freedom, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called Syria one of the most repressive countries in terms of Internet censorship.

RSF cited the case of Karim Arbaji, a blogger arrested in 2007 by the Syrian secret services, who was sentenced to three years in prison for publishing information against the national morale. by military intelligence agents in July 2007 and held in custody before being sentenced to three years in prison in September 2009 for " publishing mendacious information liable to weaken the nation’s morale”. Arbaji was released in January 2010 only after the intervention of the Syrian Catholic Church, which sent a request to President Bashar al-Assad.

Instead in 2008, police arrested Firas Saad for writing articles critical of the government.  

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