New Media Strain Government Tolerance In Syria Facebook and Twitter link young Syrians to the wider world. Even the autocratic regime has been forced to accommodate the aspirations of younger generations. People are better informed, but not empowered.

New Media Strain Government Tolerance In Syria

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


In our occasional series on Arab Youth, NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.


HONEY AL: (Foreign language spoken) Good morning, Syria.


This is how many Syrians start their day, listening to host Honey al-Sayed on al-Medina Radio. Her morning show is number one.

AL: Good morning, Syria. (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: With a mix of Arabic and English, Honey Sayed says she's pushing the boundaries of free speech.

AL: We were the first private radio to open in Syria. And we're allowed now to do something different, so that's Syria opening up.

AMOS: Unidentified Man: Honey.


AMOS: Licenses have been awarded to would-be media moguls who have close ties to the government. Still, young talents like Sayed have the freedom to talk about topics that have long been taboo.

AL: Sex education, and child abuse, and molestation. And then you've got the other topics like anorexia, bulimia, and divorce and marital problems, so on and so forth.

AMOS: How far do you go with politics?

AL: We're not a political radio station. We are not licensed to do politics.

AMOS: And with one answer she defines the limits of Syria's media opening. A top radio station can raise controversial social issues, but government officials remain wary of political speech, says Peter Harling, based in Damascus for the International Crisis Group.

PETER HARLING: It's been very hands-on, a bit of a control freak, if you want, till now. But they do realize that there is competition out there now and they have to recognize the change and adjust to it. They just find it hard to do so.

AMOS: The competition is information streaming into the country - televised, twitted and text. Young Syrians are more informed than ever before. They can ignore old-style government media, which is little more than propaganda.

HARLING: I'm not sure who really watches the Syrian media or reads the Syrian news anymore.

AMOS: So, says Peter Harling, the government has loosened controls on private outlets. Now, there are dozens of new radio stations, a television outlet, some private newspapers and magazines run by a new generation of journalists.

SAMI MOUBEYED: My name is Sami Moubeyed. I am editor-in-chief of Syria's English monthly, Forward magazine. Capital F...

AMOS: Moubeyed checks on the next edition; last minute ads and copy edits with his staff.

MOUBEYED: It's good. (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: There's an online version of this glossy magazine that includes blogs and tweets, on topics that range from the social to the political.

MOUBEYED: We're often asked about censorship. Does your magazine get read by the censors before it goes to newsstands? And people are surprised when I say no.

AMOS: It's the term Moubeyed uses to describe self-censorship. How he decides what's okay to print, how he walks the line.

MOUBEYED: It's suicide to walk over the red line. It's professional suicide to walk way below it. What's smart is to walk on that red line and try to push the bar, so you raise the red line of what can be said and what cannot be said. Perhaps slowly, but eventually they are changed.

AMOS: But the biggest challenge to the government's monopoly over the media is on the Web. Dozens of new websites, political blogs and Facebook groups have emerged that aren't so easy to control. The Syrian government has banned as many as 200 sites, including Facebook and YouTube.


AMOS: Khalid Elekhtyar(ph), an online journalist himself, explains how it works when you believe someone is always watching.

KHALID ELEKHTYAR: They cannot control the internet but they can control the people. They don't want you to feel comfortable. So sometimes, it's really this issue, like a psychological issue.

AMOS: So, it's okay to be on Facebook, you just have to feel a little uncomfortable about it?


AMOS: And everybody your age just knows what these rules are?

ELEKHTYAR: Yeah. We learn fast.

AMOS: While the internet has been a new challenge, Arab governments have learned how to counter any threat, says Josh Landis. He's an American professor who studies Syria.

JOHN LANDIS: It's about establishing limits. The government sits on top of its people and says, okay, you can read all this stuff, you can do it. But if you think you are going to organize, if you think that you are going to make a campaign, or you're going to try to bring down the government, you are going to go to jail. And that's very clear in Syria.

AMOS: And it's clear across the region, says Rami Khouri at American University of Beirut.

RAMI KHOURI: Nobody has been able to use the media and the new media, especially, to bring about political change anywhere. Not an opening, not a change in leadership, not a serious change in policy - nothing.

AMOS: Khouri has launched a group of researchers to document internet use in the Arab world, especially among the young.

KHOURI: Young people are using the Web as a means of creating parallel worlds where they have less constraints, they're not controlled, and they get a kind of vicarious thrill of living more freely than they can live in their real societies. And all of these constraints have disappeared when they're on the Web.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

GREENE: That report from Deborah Amos was a collaboration with America Abroad, a monthly Public Radio program about international affairs.

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