Assad grants “conditional” freedom to media

New law to provide freedom of information, details for foreign journalists and permits to create new media still unclear. Possible fines of up to 21 thousand U.S. dollars for “defamation”. Russia and Iran among those critical of Damascus.

Damascus (AsiaNews)- August 28, Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad issued an information bill that, in the words of a colleague in Damascus, will grant “conditional” freedom to media professionals. One of his innovations is that journalists can no longer be detained without a judicial decision. Meanwhile, in various parts of the country clashes between police and opponents continue, while criticism of the regime from China, Russia and even Iran is growing.

The law, prepared in May by an “ad hoc” committee created by the Ministry of Information, was approved by the Council of Ministers without the intervention of the People’s Assembly (unicameral parliament), as was the case for all the reforms adopted in these months. It is set to be published in the “Official Gazette” and will enter into force next month.

The rules for the implementation of this law shall be adopted by the Council of Ministers, on proposal of the Minister of Information, and after hearing the National Council for information, a body created by the new law, composed of nine members yet to be appointed. Among other things, the terms and conditions of employment of foreign media and international professionals must be considered, as well as those concerning the authorization to create private media (newspapers, news agencies, radio, television). It should be remembered that from the outset of the riots in Syria, all foreign journalists were expelled from the country.

Pending publication of the full text, the state news agency Sana (Syriana Arab News Agency) has published an extensive summary.

The law proclaims that the principles are the independence and freedom of the media, within the framework of the constitution and laws of the country, freedom of expression as recognized by international conventions, the right of citizens to information on public affairs ; respect for the “national and pan-Arab values of Syrian society, the interests of the people and national identity.”

Journalists must be “responsible” in their exercise of freedom of expression, they will have the right to have access to sources of information, but must be committed to the veracity and accuracy of the information they publish, respecting privacy, dignity and rights. They will have also the right not to reveal their sources, except by decision of a court and in this case behind closed doors. Their rights include those to attend all public meetings, to publish analysis and commentary on facts. Any attack against a journalist in the exercise of his profession will be considered an attack against a State official.

Public institutions have a duty to provide the information requested by journalists, verbally or in writing. But the Council of Ministers will decide whether information can be revealed by public institutions.

In any case, it is forbidden to publish news or comments that could harm “national unity and security” or which “offend religions,” thus inciting sectarian hatred, violence, terrorism and racism, or which “offend state symbols,” as well as all that is prohibited by the Penal Code, by the laws and court decisions. As for the Armed Forces, only information authorized by the command may be published.

The president of the Syrian journalists, Elias Murad, told AFP about one detail of the law that is not included in the summary published by Sana: journalists can be sentenced to a fine of up to 21 thousand US dollars for “defamation”.

Meanwhile, international criticism of Damascus is growing. Yesterday, after the meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers (the Syrian minister was absent), held the day before in Cairo, the Syrian government protested against the statement issued by the Arab League on the events in Libya and Syria, which states “the importance of stopping bloodshed and to appeal to reason before it’s too late. ” The League has announced that it had instructed its secretary general, Nabil El-Arabi, to go to Damascus to mediate, but so far Syria has not accepted the proposal.

Even friends of the Syrian regime are beginning to worry. Russia, which along with China used its veto against any Security Council resolution for sanctions against Syria, has proposed another resolution calling on the regime in Damascus to carry out urgent reforms.

In Turkey, President Abdullah Gul has told Anatolia news agency: “We have lost confidence in the Syrian regime” and the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told a private television station that Turkey, between the Syrian government and the Syrian people, chooses the people.

Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, the Syrian regime’s main ally, speaking four days ago to the Lebanese television station Al-Manar (organ of Hezbollah), said that the Damascus government should listen to the “legitimate questions” of the people who are entitled “freedom and justice.” Ahmadinejad added, however, that any change of political regime in Damascus would be a danger to the entire Middle East.

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