Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Speaking in a low and subdued voice, Director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression and human rights activist, Mazen Darwish, spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the situation in Syria, and the role being played by the Syrian media. Darwish is a prominent Syrian human rights activist who had been arrested several times by the Damascus regime. He spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the role being played by the Syrian state media, and the media blackout being imposed upon journalists with regards to covering the anti-governmental protests that have swept the country, stressing that these practices will not prevent the truth from reaching the international public opinion.
Concerning his assessment of the media blackout imposed by the al-Assad regime, Darwish told Asharq Al-Awsat that he completely rejects this, stressing “the manner in which the media reports are being managed [by the regime] has transgressed the boundaries of professionalism and credibility, which can be explained as the state-run media is not independent.” Darwish acknowledged that it is difficult to determine the extent to which ordinary Syrians believe the official media, however he did indicate that a portion of the Syrian street did not trust the official media because “the Syrian media has inserted itself into the political problem that is taking place in the country as a main party, rather than as an observer, which is the natural position for the media.”
Darwish stressed that the media blackout would not bring the protests to an end, stressing that “the manner in which the media discourse is being managed serves only to aggravate the situation, and contributes to the acute division that is splitting Syrian society. The evidence of this can be clearly seen today. The Syrian media has split the country into two camps; conspirators and patriots, or traitors and honourable citizens. This is part of accusing people of treason, and it is something that will have catastrophic consequences.”
As for the current situation in Syria, Darwish told Asharq Al-Awsat that “I can say that what has led us to this situation is the lack of freedom of expression in Syria, for there are no institutions that allow opposing opinions or viewpoints to be aired, like political parties or other kinds of institutions.”
As for the role of social networking websites in the coverage of the Syrian protests, Darwish stressed that such websites have played a prominent role as an alternative media outlet for the Syrian people. Darwish told Asharq Al-Awsat that “citizen journalism” is breaking through this media blackout, particularly lauding the role of “You Tube”, which he said has played a pivotal role in Syria, similar to the role played by “Twitter” and Facebook” in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
As for Damascus claiming that foreign satellite television and the international press are “biased” in their coverage of the situation in Syria, Darwish stressed that “this is double standards; the regime has banned foreign journalists from entering the country, whilst at the same time blaming them for covering events from outside. It would be better for the Syrian authorities to allow foreign journalists into the country to cover and report the full picture.”
Darwish also confirmed that the major violation of journalists’ rights in Syria is censorship, adding that in addition to this they face psychological pressures to choose between being pro-government or anti-government, which hinders journalistic objectivity and impartiality. Darwish described this as being a form of psychological pressure that negatively affects journalists and their work.
Syrian human rights activist Mazen Darwish also told Asharq Al-Awsat that some journalists in Syria are now being legally pursued for voicing their opinions. He noted that “one journalist, Maan Aqil, was taken to court for reports events in a manner that some did not like, which is something that critically threatens the credibility of the media.”
Darwish stressed that Syria needs to liberate the media from the control of the state. He added that Damascus should put in place laws to protect the media; laws that guarantee the right to obtain information, to cover events, and publish news. He also told Asharq Al-Awsat that Damascus must allow the Syrian Press Association more freedom and independence, and ensure that relations between the media and government are based upon the law, not [political] allegiance.
Commenting on the Syrian government’s response to a joint-statement issued by a group of Syrian intellectuals and writers who appealed to the government to allow milk into the besieged city of Deraa, Darwish said that the government response was excessive and just part of the government policy of splitting the people of Syria into “conspirators or patriots.”