Censorship in Syria: A Double ‘Virtual’ Penalty

An internet without censorship and control is unattainable for Syrians today. Local and international restrictions have deprived those living in Syria of unrestricted access to world news, websites and references—a right most of us enjoy freely. The government has many websites censored and other countries have imposed their own restrictions,  in compliance with international sanctions imposed on Syria since 2011.

“It is very difficult for journalists and researchers to access information on the internet because Syrian authorities have blocked an enormous number of websites,” says Abdullah Nasser, a Syrian media student based in the United Arab Emirates. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Syria entered the Guinness Book of Records as the top country censoring foreign websites, under the pretext of shielding its citizens against tendentious sites. The situation is very similar to the censorship of satellite TV a while back, except different techniques are involved.”

At the moment, journalists and researchers are unable to access a large number of blocked websites because they are allegedly “opposed to state policy.” Syrian activist Mohamed Alabdallah told SMEX: “Websites have been blocked ever since the internet became available in Syria, even though there is no clear censorship policy. While some news sites are blocked for political reasons, such as the ‘Al-Quds Al-Arabi’ newspaper, it is unclear why a site like ‘Wikipedia’ is blocked.”

According to users inside Syria, other blocked websites include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a crucial source on which university faculty rely. In other instances, website-blocking becomes ironic, Nasser says, as “the BBC Arabic website is banned in some Syrian areas, whereas the BBC English website is available to all for no obvious reason.”

External Censorship

Not only do Syrians suffer from internal censorship, but foreign countries are also implicit in this knowledge-deprivation. External sanctions have caused many services and sites to be blocked in Syria. Sanctions imposed on the country include the blocking of educational websites, such as the American Learning Center and the British Council websites. Wafaa, a medicine student at the University of Damascus, said in a conversation with SMEX that this censorship has severely hampered her studies. She explains that, “Due to U.S. sanctions, it is impossible to browse American scientific websites inside Syria, let alone subscribe to them. The number 403, which accompanies the message ‘this service is not available in your country’, has become a bitter inside joke.”

Wael, who works as a web developer, complains about the inability to subscribe to services that are essential to his work. “Users are forced to open bank accounts outside Syria, because international e-transactions are impossible from inside Syria, and the embargo prevents the use of alternative payment services,” says Wael.

He explained to SMEX the impossible situation surrounding transactions in Syria. Wael had to assign a person in Lebanon to carry out banking transactions, such as opening a Lebanese bank and making e-payments on an almost weekly basis–which proved to be a burdensome and costly solution. Others in the field hire taxi drivers travelling the Damascus-Beirut line to send money to offices that provide such services. “But this is not a risk-free process. There is no guarantee to your rights but a verbal agreement and wishful trust in others,” Wael added.

Previously, before the sanctions were imposed, “internet cards provided by private banks were out of reach for Syrians due to their high cost and the difficulty in obtaining them,” according to Nasser. That said, the State banned their distribution in Aleppo in 2010, without issuing a formal decision, arguing that they were “harmful to the national economy and allowed untraceable money transfers,” although they were provided through a private bank.

Different Methods to Bypass Censorship

Users in Syria have not given in to censorship; rather, they’ve adopted several strategies to bypass it. One of them requires using proxy apps, whereby the blocked website provides links to its content through a proxy service that makes it seem as if the user’s device is connected from a different geographic location. But these apps can be very unsafe. 

Many users in Syria rely on free proxy apps due to the high cost of  paid proxy services and the difficulty to make an online payment. However, digital expert and engineer Mohamed Bashir told SMEX that most free proxy apps are unsafe, since they do not offer a sufficient level of protection. He explains that proxy detection “makes it easy for government tracking software to access the IP addresses of the proxy users, as it limits the number of people using this application to a specific geographical range.”

A study carried out by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, titled “The Status of Media and Freedom of Expression – Syria 2006,” clearly reflects the adopted censorship methodology. According to the study, “Internet service providers in the telecom organization adopt a clear policy that consists of blocking everything but a limited number of services. For example, every website with the word ‘mail’ in its name is blocked, including all email services.”

Censorship is a Violation of Human Rights

Activist Alabdallah asserts that internet censorship oppresses the freedom of expression and restricts people’s access to websites, including global educational and cultural sites. In 2012, the Syrian regime issued a legislative decree that tightened censorship and reinforced the policy of random blocking. Alabdallah considers this censorship a form of “intellectual and cognitive intimidation against users–practiced with impunity,” and believes that it “makes users feel that they are under surveillance, harnessing in them fear against any technology that may give them access to blocked sites.” According to investigative reporter Musab Al-Shawabkeh, member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the blocking of news websites maimes the freedom of opinion and expression and consequently, restricts other rights too. 

In conversation with SMEX, Al-Shawabkeh described the situation as follows:

“The Syrian Government’s violation of this right by blocking websites – and thereby withholding information from people – impairs the right to disseminate information, the right to knowledge and the right to access information. When the right to access information is violated, a person loses their ability to make sound decisions regarding political participation or voting. Without access to knowledge, citizens will build their knowledge on false, fragmented or politically biased information…This applies not only to political participation, but also to social and economic participation, and even to the individual’s personal decisions.”

The right to internet access is a universal human right, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council. However, between the hammer of internal censorship and the anvil of foreign sanctions, Syrians struggle to obtain their most basic rights: the freedom to access information and knowledge, especially when it is widely and easily available for the rest of the world.

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Mokhtar al-Ibrahim

مختار الإبراهيم صحافي سوري، حائز على ماجستير في الإعلام من جامعة دمشق، وهو عضو في "الاتحاد الدولي للصحفيين الاستقصائين"، وحاصل على جائزة أفضل تحقيق صحافي على مستوى الوطن العربي 2014 من "شبكة الصحافة شبكة الصحافة الاستقصائية" - أريج.