December 16, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 829

Syrian Journalists Debate Treatment of Civilians by Security Apparatuses

December 16, 2004
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 829

A debate has recently emerged among Syrian journalists about the treatment of civilians by Syrian security apparatuses. This debate followed a communiqué issued by journalist Dr. Nabil Fayyad upon his release from one month's detention in a Syrian jail on suspicion of being one of the founders of the Liberal Discourse Club in Syria. In his communiqué, Fayyad praised the Syrian security personnel for treating him fairly and said: "It became clear to me from conversations with the other detainees that the moral and civilized treatment I was receiving was not given only to me because I was educated, but was being given to all the people, particularly after Dr. Bashar Al-Assad [rose to power]. This made me feel that this man's existence is enough to protect us and our aspirations for freedom and true democracy." [1]

Following this communiqué, Syrian journalist Hakam Al-Baba, writing in the Syrian government daily Teshreen, criticized Fayyad's statements. Al-Baba's article provoked many responses, some agreeing with him and others stating that change is indeed underway in Syria. The following are excerpts from some of the articles:

Al-Baba: Fayyad's Statement is a Caricature Even in a Humor Column

Journalist HakamAl-Baba wrote: "If I had written in the [paper's] humor section the content of the communiqué that Dr. Nabil Fayyad wrote following his month-long detention by one of Syria's security apparatuses – in which he described the exceptionally humane treatment he received – I would be accused of exaggeration, of having no feelings, and of mocking human pain.

"[I could not] refrain from smiling when I read this communiqué, ironically published in the Syrian press, which usually does not publish personal communiqués. Mr. Fayyad describes in detail the humane treatment he received, beginning with permission to phone anyone he wished to speak to, and including calling in a private physician, hinting that he spent his detention in hospital with medical treatment, which he forgot to describe as excellent. He notes that his interrogation was nothing more than a sympathetic conversation, and that following this, he had gone home.

"But the only thing that passed through Mr. Fayyad's 'sieve' as he enumerated the services he enjoyed in the [five-star] security [hotel] was how he was arrested after a search of his house and his workplace – which would seem to contradict his humane treatment during the subsequent detention.

"This communiqué … reminds me of prisoners who are taken into the prison yard so they can shout to their jailers about how they will redeem them with [their] soul and blood. The only thing missing from this caricature was a call to all residents [to come] and enjoy this kind of original and relaxing security tourism.

"Now, let us set aside this imaginary drama and ask in all seriousness: Does this also happen in less serious cases of a security apparatus's summoning of residents, not only in cases of arrest?… I don't think so. In 2001, I published an article on the Syrian media in the Lebanese paper Al-Nahar, which was less [severe] than statements by current Syrian Interior Minister Gen. Ghazi Kan'an, who said that nobody reads the Syrian press. For this, I spent over two weeks with one of the security apparatuses: every day from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM, and from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM, during which I listened to threats, warnings, accusations, and interrogation regarding [my] connections. [I had] to confess [to charges] under threat and fear that I never felt in my life, except during similar moments in which I was summoned to a different security apparatus.

"If anyone tells me that this era is over, let me tell you what happened to me only a few months ago. During my participation in a conference held by the BBC in Damascus, I refrained from taking [a copy of] the Al-Ba'th newspaper distributed to participants. During the break, the [paper's] editor, who had in the meantime become Information Minister [Mahdi Dakhlallah], rebuked me for throwing his paper on the ground, which I hadn't, and asked me threateningly whether I knew to what party this mouthpiece belonged and what this party was. He added that there were other elements that would know [better] how to talk with me.

"Ten days later, I was summoned for interrogation to one of the security apparatuses on charges of throwing [a copy of] Al-Ba'th to the ground, so as to remind me that this building [i.e. the security apparatus building] – which was notorious, and which my friends and I feared to walk past, and when we had to walk past it we would avert our gaze out of fear and horror – was aimed at terrorizing us and creating in us a new illness feared by Syrian residents, called 'Security [Apparatus] Phobia.'

"Now Mr. Nabil Fayyad comes and tells us about the fine treatment given to residents, to the point where the reader thinks that the employees of that building are alumni of the finest schools in the world of ethics…" [2]

Fayyad Rebuts: Syria has Changed in Recent Years

In response to Al-Baba's article, Nabil Fayyad wrote a rebuttal, printed in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, in which he stated: "To those who do not know, Syria has changed completely in recent years… The best proof of this is the humane treatment given me by security [personnel] and [the fact that Al-Baba's article], which included defamation [aimed] directly at the present information minister, was published in a government paper…

"Syria has truly changed, but the most difficult problem lies in the inability of those who are stagnant [i.e. Al-Baba] to courageously face that change. Their statements and articles are the best proof of their difficulty in grasping reality." [3]

Other Columnists: The Publication of Al-Baba's Article in a Government Paper Proves There Is Freedom of Expression

Attorney Mamoun Al-Tabba' wrote: "A cloud of optimism accompanied the arrival of the [new] eight-minister team, following the recent reshuffle in the [Syrian] cabinet. The optimists expect [this cloud] to bring rain, while the pessimists suspect that it will bring thunder and lightning, but without rain.

"I have expressed optimism to the eternal pessimists, because the new information minister and the editors of the three newspapers are showing seriousness in their intentions to open the media to all opinions, to break the monopoly, and to limit censorship…

"The publication of Fayyad's communiqué and Al-Baba's article are a message to all those who write for the Gulf newspapers and the electronic papers to return to their local Syrian press…" [4] wrote: "The discussion launched by the information minister is indeed worthy of attention, and attests to a new way of thought that has recently reached the 10th floor of the information ministry. Its aim is that the media should awaken, bear full responsibility, and free themselves from the role of the frightened media that fear question marks and telling the truth, half [the truth], or even hinting at it, so that they will be able to open their pages and their hearts to honest and courageous writing, written at times with a knife to lance and heal the gangrenous wound…

"Both the statements by Nabil Fayyad and Hakam Al-Baba are correct. This is the truth…" [5]

Syrian physician Fayyiz Al-Omar also criticized Hakam Al-Baba and praised the change in Syria and Syria's security apparatuses: "Al-Baba's mocking response to Nabil Fayyad's communiqué has boomeranged powerfully, because he described his journey of horror with Syrian intelligence while writing from Syria – and [yet] the Syrian security apparatuses are not touching him. Is there any greater shame?

"Then, we see him writing against Nabil Fayyad to accuse the Syrian information minister of threatening him. I do not know how Minister Dakhlallah is threatening an author of a lousy article but does not prevent it from being published – and this should have been prevented, because [the article] infringes upon all borders of propriety.

"[Al-Baba] should be sued for defamation, disgrace, and publication of false statements damaging to the state – yet despite this the honorable minister permitted the publication of this article, so that the public would know that there has indeed been a change and that the area of freedom [in Syria] has been widened…

"Indeed, there is a change amongst the authorities and the intelligence community. It is the educated among us and their ilk who have not changed." [6]

Opposition Website: What Syria Needs is to Stop the Security Apparatuses, Not to Permit Their Criticism

The opposition website Akhbar al-Sharq wrote: "Perhaps a government paper's publication of an article on the conduct of the security apparatuses and their image in the eyes of the public is an unprecedented event and a prominent turning point. But [what Syria needs] is not permission to discuss [their actions] or criticize [them], but [to put] an end to all actions that leave scars on the souls of Syrians and open a chasm between Syrians and the apparatuses whose mission is to protect their security." [7]

Italian-Syrian Journalist: 'No One Trusts the Syrian Newspapers – Except Falafel and Shawarma Vendors, Who Use Them to Wrap Their Wares'

Italian-Syrian journalist and documentary director Nadia Qassar Dabaj took issue with statements by Syrian Journalists' Association chairman Saber Falhout, who had asserted that "not one Syrian journalist has been arrested in recent decades for professional reasons," and who had called upon Syrian journalists "to publish the 'dirty laundry'…" The following are excerpts from Dabaj's article:

"Everyone knows that since the Ba'th [Party] came to power in the March 1963 military coup, it revoked the licenses of all independent journalists, and only government newspapers remain. Today Syria has only three newspapers for 20 million citizens – and they are distributed at almost no cost because no one will buy them – because no one trusts them except the shawarma and falafel vendors who buy newspapers in bulk for wrapping [their wares]…

"The greatest absurdity is that Interior Minister Ghazi Kan'an declared a few weeks ago that no one reads the Syrian press. The greatest absurdity is that the mere name of this man is enough to arouse horror among the Lebanese. According to many Lebanese and international reports, his name is linked to the murder and physical abuse of Lebanese journalists, such as Salim Al-Lawzi, Riyadh Taha, and the Jordanian journalist Michel Al-Namari. [His name is also linked to] the blowing up of the offices of Lebanese newspapers, such as Al-Nahar and Al-Safir.

"The repression of Syrian journalists includes hair-raising tales, some of which are known to the world. During the 1980s, journalist and poet Farraj Birqadar was imprisoned for 16 years, and after that the journalist Nizar Nayyouf spent 10 years in solitary confinement and is at death's door, or crippled, in a French hospital following cruel torture.

"In February 1992, the famous television announcer Munir Muhammad Al-Ahmad was murdered in the interrogation wing in a military [jail]; he took a blow to the head with a metal chair during interrogation. Prominent author and academician 'Aref Dalilah has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest. He is serving 10 years, and his medical condition is very serious.

"There is no point in telling of the gauntlet of torment of the press and journalists in the slaughterhouses of the regime – because [it would fill] many volumes.

"The absurdity of the Saber Falhout affair, which is a slap to the reader, is that [even] Al-Hayat correspondent Ibrahim Hamidi – one of 90 journalists blessed by the Journalists Association chairman with membership in the association – is still awaiting trial. He was released [from detention] because of an article he published on the eve of the attack on Saddam's fascist regime; in [the article] he noted that the Syrian authorities were planning to take in about a million Iraqis who would be fleeing to Syria with the war's outbreak. No one in the world could have imagined such brazenness as Falhout's, who is not ashamed of making such statements [that no Syrian journalist has been arrested in the last decades] in Ibrahim Hamidi's presence…" [8]

[1] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 24, 2004.

[2] Teshreen (Syria), November 23, 2004.

[3] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 27, 2004.

[4] Champress (Syria), November 28, 2004.

[5] Champress (Syria), November 28, 2004.

[6] Teshreen (Syria), November 27, 2004.

[7] Champress (Syria), November 28, 2004.

[8] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), November 28, 2004.

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