DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrian officials boast a state-of-the art press center with fast Internet access and wireless technology for press covering the upcoming Arab summit. But the country is tightening its own citizens' use of the Internet — jailing writers and bloggers and blocking sites deemed harmful to state security.
The controls tightened considerably in recent days when authorities began requiring Internet cafe owners to keep a detailed log of their customers, apparently to make it easier to track down offenders.
The new directive, conveyed orally by security agents, requires Internet cafe owners to take down their clients' full name, ID or passport number, the number of the computer and the amount of time spent on the computer. The logs are to be submitted to security agents upon request.
"It's a new form of psychological pressure and part of the state's systematic intimidation of Internet users," said Mazen Darwish, a journalist who heads the independent Syrian Media Center.
"It works to a certain extent in the sense that it creates a kind of self-censorship among users," he told The Associated Press.
Darwish himself has been a target of repression of the media. He was arrested in January as he was reporting on unrest in the town of Adra, near Damascus, after a murder in the area, and he is currently standing trial before a military court for alleged defamation of state institutions. He faces up to one year in jail if convicted, he says.
The new measures imposed on Internet users are just the latest technique employed by authorities to tighten their control of the media. President Bashar Assad, who took over from his late father Hafez Assad in 2000, has somewhat relaxed his father's iron grip on the country, but he has also cracked down on dissent, jailing writers and pro-democracy activists.
Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, is credited with introducing the Internet and cellular phones to the socialist-style country, but almost all print and audiovisual media remains state-owned or run, even so-called private media.
In 2006, the group Reporters Without Borders ranked Syria among 13 "enemies of the Internet," calling it the Middle East's "biggest prison for cyber-dissidents."
According to the Syrian Media Center and other rights group, there are at least 153 Web sites that are currently blocked by Syrian authorities. They include sites run by the Syrian opposition, newspapers critical of the regime and networking and video-sharing sites.
Among the most popular are Facebook, which was blocked in late December, YouTube, Skype and Google's blogging engine, www.blogspot.com. Users who try to access online versions of the Lebanese anti-Syrian newspapers An-Nahar and Al-Mustaqbal and the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat pan-Arab daily also get a blank page. Even the official Web site for slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is blocked.
The Syrian government does not comment on its Internet restriction policies, but Syrian media reports at the time Facebook was blocked said the ban was put in place to prevent Israeli users from infiltrating Syrian social networks.
Ahed al-Hindi, a 23-year-old Syrian who was arrested at an Internet cafe in Damascus in late 2006 for posting writings critical of the regime on an online forum, said security services often ask cafe owners to spy on clients, providing them with software programs for the task.
He was hauled off from the cafe, handcuffed and blindfolded and jailed for one month without trial. He left Syria three months later after "nonstop harassment and intimidation" by security agents, he said. "They made life impossible and I decided to leave the country," said the economics student who now lives in Lebanon.
Rami al-Saadi, who manages an Internet cafe in Damascus, said it bothers him when agents come visiting for occasional security checks. "This is wrong, of course I don't like it," he said.
Still, he said Syria has come a long way in just a few years, and believes it's progress that the Internet is now available to all.
"I remember only few years ago when we didn't even know what the Internet was. We used to dial up ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in Beirut to find out," he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch group said in a recent report that around 1 million of Syria's 18 million people now have online access, compared to just 30,000 in 2000.
"There is progress in the sense that it's become easier to be online," said Rasha Ibrahim, 24, a psychology graduate. She noted that government controls tend to backfire.
"Everything forbidden becomes more tempting," she said.