Syria to Reform Media Rules

In Depth

Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, has called for reforms in Syria's state-controlled media. The system has opened up for privately owned newspapers and magazines. Arab governments know that the satellite television revolution makes it harder for tightly controlled state media to attract audiences, but reforming the system takes reforming individuals.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

With satellite television and the Internet, it is hard for Arab governments to control the flow of information. In Syria, where rooftops are crowded with satellite dishes, the audience for state-controlled media is dwindling. The Syrian government has pledged to reform restrictive media laws, but as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus, reforming the journalists who work for Syria's state-run system won't be so easy.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

The Syrian government knows that fewer and fewer Syrians pay any attention to the news on state-run TV. That's why they called on the British Broadcasting Corporation for help. Arabic-speaking BBC journalists turned the top floor of Syrian TV into a classroom recently. Ibrahim Helal, one of the London trainers, says Arab governments can no longer control what people watch and what they think, and that puts government officials in a bind.

Mr. IBRAHIM HELAL (London Trainer): We are under huge pressures from inside and outside. It is not in their benefit anymore to deal with media as a propaganda tool.

AMOS: The trainees who have worked for years in a tightly controlled system are eager for change, says Nagam al-Kafagi(ph) with the BBC team.

Mr. NAGAM AL-KAFAGI (BBC): Although from time to time they raise the problems that they can't do it here, but we just tell them that, `This is the way we do it, and it's up to you.'

AMOS: Do you think you can change them?

Mr. AL-KAFAGI: There is a hope.

AMOS: Syrian journalist Rafi Hatib(ph) says there are subjects she believes are taboo.

Ms. RAFI HATIB (Syrian Journalist): Here we have a red line to not (unintelligible).

AMOS: And do you know what the red lines are here?

Ms. HATIB: Yeah, not all of them, but I know the majority of them.

AMOS: A new media law prohibits coverage of the army and the Ministry of Defense, but other subjects are less clear. For example, it's illegal to broadcast a report that hurts national security and social unity. A journalist can be jailed for any story that's against the dignity of the state, but what does that mean? The ambiguity creates fear, says Ibrahim Helal.

Mr. HELAL: Most of censorship in the Arab world's self-censorship, and as a journalist you have to think independently. Of course, you can face restrictions after you think independently, but, please, you need to be able to think independently. It's not harmful.

AMOS: The most independent-minded journalists work in Syria's new private media. The first privately owned magazine was launched five years ago. Syria Today, an English-language magazine, published its first issue last year.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

AMOS: Kinda Kanbar is the executive editor. That's her spiked heels. She's 27 years old, an example of Syria's new generation trying to push the limits.

Ms. KINDA KANBAR (Executive Editor, Syria Today): Most of the people in Syria don't want to take responsibilities, and this is a very important problem.

AMOS: Syria's president has called for media reform, but Kanbar says the mentality of journalists is part of the problem.

Ms. KANBAR: So I will tell you this is the red lines from my boss because I don't want to bother and think. This is the red lines of the government because I don't want to take responsibilities. Once we train them to take responsibilities and be aware of what they have to do, we push the reform process ahead.

AMOS: Back at state-run television, the BBC's Nagam al-Kafagi is going over lessons learned.

Mr. AL-KAFAGI: Don't forget that's not...

AMOS: `Accuracy and fairness are important,' he tells them in Arabic.

Mr. AL-KAFAGI: Always remind yourselves of these.

AMOS: Rafi Hatib, the television journalist, says the training has changed her.

Ms. HATIB: Maybe our idea about the red lines, it's--completely disappear. For me, it's really good.

AMOS: The week has changed the trainers, too. Al-Kafagi says reforming Syria's state media is harder than he thought.

Mr. AL-KAFAGI: The people are willing to change, but the system is letting them down.

AMOS: A system with an overprotective bureaucracy that stalls reforms despite orders from the top. One example from the BBC's Philip Darley, who trained editors, giving them tips on editing television pictures, the best length for a shot.

Mr. PHILIP DARLEY (British Broadcasting Corporation): They're not in control of that because their managers determine how long the shot should be.

AMOS: Managers who still enforce the old style, says Darley, and determine who gets television time.

Mr. DARLEY: Somebody important or if he's got a lot of money or if he's somebody in government, he's got to be there for a long time. The more important he is, the longer the shot.

AMOS: Which is why Syrian television won't change much, says al-Kafagi.

Mr. AL-KAFAGI: All want change, but change--they want it at their own pace, which is slow.

AMOS: The slower the change, the more Syrians will turn off state television and turn to other international broadcasts that look nothing like Syrian TV. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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