A journalist from the Syria-News website works at her office in Damascus on November 4 as Syria prepares to vote on an internet law that has raised concerns about online media in a country which already keeps a tight control of the web and where access to at least 240 sites is blocked. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: The Middle East's modest window for dissent, created by a surge in blogging and online journalism over the past decade, looks poised to narrow with a raft of measures across the region.

A draft internet law awaiting parliamentary approval in Syria is one such measure. The government says it would give a needed legal framework to online activity by forcing bloggers to register as union members, conferring rights such as a press card to online journalists for the first time, and potentially requiring content be withdrawn from websites.

Online journalists and bloggers in Syria, already subject to harassment and imprisonment, are concerned that the law is designed to crack down on their activities and restrict freedom of expression. Media analysts say parliamentary approval is likely to come soon.

Since Syria's online sphere began to blossom in 2000, Syrian websites — which face less scrutiny than the country's print media — have been able to publish stories on sensitive subjects such as the army and corruption. They have recently brought to light a controversial personal status law and the issue of corporal punishment.

Important topics

"We have democratised information and flagged up sensitive and important topics for debate, both controversial and non-controversial," says Abdul Ayman Nour, the editor of All4Syria, a news website run from outside the country which as well as writing about politics has actively campaigned about neglected topics such as the environment.

"But a law that stipulates that police can enter the office of a website to take journalists for questioning, seize their computers, and impose penalties of jail or a fine of up to 1 million Syrian pounds [$200,000] is clearly designed to end that."

The Middle East has long been known as one of the least liberal regions for media freedoms in the world, though the advent of new media forms has pushed the boundaries of media restrictions and made governments more accountable to their citizens.

"The satellite revolution and the launch of private television in the 1990s made it harder to censor content," says Naila Hamdy, a former journalist who now teaches at the American University in Cairo.

"Now the internet, which was formerly used only by a handful of people, has exploded, challenging traditional government-controlled media."

But Middle Eastern countries pushed back as internet usage surged 13-fold from 2000 to 2008. A 2009 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists detailed the tailoring of press laws and the introduction of new laws across the region .

Egypt, in the run-up to November 28 parliamentary elections and the presidential election next year, has imposed restrictions on the press. Satellite television stations must now request a licence before broadcasting a live event, as must companies engaging in mass text messaging.

But Syria is ranked even worse than Egypt on this year's annual press freedom chart by Reporters without Borders. The international organisation based in Paris put Syria at 173 out of 178 countries, just behind Sudan and China, and beating out only Iran and a handful of others.

Syrian websites espousing harsh political criticism, such as All4Syria, are blocked along with some human rights and social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook — although most Syrians use proxy software to access them. Many publications are subject to censorship.

But this is not a complete picture, say analysts. Taleb Kadi Ameen, director of the Arab Radio & TV training centre in Damascus and former deputy information minister, says the Syrian law is part of a global trend to regulate the internet and deal with negative effects such as violations of copyright law. "This law is simply designed to tell online journalists that they are responsible for what they write," he says.

Defamatory material

"Many websites copy and paste material and publish defamatory or untrue material, often anonymously, and there is currently no mechanism to deal with it.

"It is not about limiting freedom of expression but giving support to legitimate online journalists and increasing people's rights not to be defamed," he added.

But such laws include a risk of abuse, say analysts. "The challenge is promulgating a law that cannot be used to silence dissent," says Professor Hamdy. Syrian bloggers claim the new regulations will lead them to self-censor, write anonymously, or leave the country, which will lower their credibility, but some say the law will have little consequence.

"The internet is almost impossible to police and Syria and other countries already mete out penalties without a specific law," says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University. "It will, however, add another layer of anxiety for journalists."