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by THE GUARDIAN Thursday, Oct. 30, 2003 at 9:27 AM

Syrian whispers: The lack of press freedom in Syria causes more speculative rumour than it prevents

October 29, 2003

The Guardian - Brian Whitaker

The old Soviet Union had two main newspapers - Pravda ("The Truth") and Izvestia ("The News"). Russians used to joke that there was no news in "The Truth" and no truth in "The News". The Soviet Union is long gone, but there's still a whiff of the Kremlin today in Damascus.

Despite some loosening-up over the last three years and much talk of reforms to come, the old ways persist in the Syrian media. For all practical purposes the newspapers, radio and television are part of the government bureaucracy and their task at the moment, as the US prepares to impose sanctions, is to show that the rest of the world is rallying to support Syria in its conflict with Washington. "British minister lauds President Bashar's policy," a headline on the front page of the Syria Times announced last Wednesday.

Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien, the story said, had given a speech to the British-Syrian Society in London, in which he "praised President Bashar al-Assad's policy in the regional and international arenas and described it as important.

" Up to a point, maybe.

But the minister's actual words were not reported, leading one to suspect that they were rather more nuanced than the Syria Times had its readers believe.

It was much the same when King Juan Carlos of Spain spoke at a banquet last Tuesday during his state visit to Syria. The king "highlighted President Bashar's strong will and determination to make Syria an advanced state in terms of maintaining political and economic reforms and confident openness to the outside world," according to the paper.

Once again, the relevant bit of his speech was not quoted directly, though a speech by President Bashar at the banquet was printed word-for-word in full.

Last week, while staying in Damascus, I had the opportunity to interview Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria's foreign minister, together with three other journalists.

Bizarrely, we were allowed to take notes and quote him but not to use tape recorders - presumably making it easier for Mr Sharaa to claim we had misquoted him if he didn't like what we wrote. Just as the interview was about to start, a man with a TV camera came in and filmed us sitting with the minister.

It was later shown on Syrian television and, according to someone who saw the programme, all our job titles had been changed to make us seem more important.

One of the journalists, a freelance who sometimes writes for Paris Match, was described as the magazine's editor. It may not be much on the Richter scale of dishonesty, but these little tweaks of the truth gradually add up a self-flattering picture in which the world's most senior journalists, as well as its leading statesmen, are supposedly queuing to pay tribute in Damascus.

One glimmer of media daylight came in 2001 - shortly after President Bashar took over from his father - with the launch of a satirical weekly called Addomari (the Lamplighter).

It was Syria's first independent newspaper in 38 years and for a time sold more copies than all the official dailies put together. It closed a few months ago, though technically speaking it was not shut down by the authorities. It closed, I was told, because its licence expired. Its licence expired because it had not been published for a while. It wasn't published for a while because it could not be printed.

So why couldn't it be printed? Er ... that's an interesting question. It's often said that in the days before television was invented people made their own entertainment.

Well, in Syria today, people do that with news. In the absence of any real news from the official media, they spread stories by word of mouth - a fascinating blend of fact, rumour and conspiracy theory which in the long run is far more damaging to the authorities than allowing the media a free hand.

The other day, I met a Syrian friend who asked excitedly: "Have you heard about the attempted coup? General Kanaan has been arrested along with his sons. They are still alive, but nobody knows where they are." As head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s, General Ghazi Kanaan was largely responsible for establishing Syria's grip over the country and came to be regarded as the supreme power broker in Lebanese politics. He clashed with President Bashar in the late 1990s when - as part of his training for the presidency - he was put in charge of Syrian-Lebanese relations.

However, later on they appeared to have patched up their differences. The failed coup, my friend assured me, was the talk of the diplomatic community in Damascus, though on checking with a couple of diplomats, I found them unforthcoming. "General Kanaan has disappeared from the scene," one said cryptically, adding that this might or might not be connected with the sudden death of Mustapha al-Tajir, Syria's number two in military intelligence. Mr Tajir's death aroused widespread suspicion, mainly because the Syrian media stated in no uncertain terms that he died of natural causes. "If you want to know what's really going on in Syria," someone else advised, "talk to women. The wives of government officials know everything." It works on the pillow talk principle, apparently.

Husbands come home after a bad day at the ministry or the army HQ and tell their wives all about it. Next day the wives compare notes and in this way - so the theory goes - they have developed Syria's finest newsgathering network.

Hoping to tap into this exclusive network I made an appointment to visit Mrs X, a Syrian woman who was married to a fairly senior government official.

In many Arab countries it would be considered highly improper for an unrelated male to visit a woman at home, but in Syria it is no problem - one of the few tangible benefits of Soviet influence. Mrs X's home was a rather ordinary block of flats with a grubby staircase, but the flat itself was elegantly furnished, with none of the gaudy kitsch that fills so many sitting-rooms in the Middle East.

In front of the sofa, a glass-topped table was ready prepared with two plates and napkins, two clean ashtrays and two packets of cigarettes - one freshly opened, the other in reserve. They were Gitanes Blondes, of course, since it isn't done to offer guests a cheap local brand, and socially-responsible Syrians these days do their bit for world peace by smoking as many French cigarettes as they can while shunning American brands.

Even so, to imagine that a hostess and one guest might get through 40 French cigarettes during an hour-long chat over a glass of iced tea, seemed to be taking political correctness a bit far - but that's Syrian hospitality. There were also two plates of assorted cookies sufficient for at least 20 people. Like many Syrians, Mrs X was far more cynical than foreign observers about the prospects for reform.

Foreigners tend to highlight the things that have changed, while Syrians focus on those that remain unchanged. On the plus side, it's no longer obligatory for government ministers to belong to the Ba'ath party, President Bashar is gradually replacing the old guard with new faces, the first private banks will soon be opening and the long-awaited association agreement with Europe will probably be finalised by the end of the year. "It may be slow, but the direction is clear," one European diplomat said.

On the other side, there are serious questions about how far reform can go without causing turmoil in the upper levels of society. Though Syria is still theoretically a socialist country, the elite - aided by their government connections - practise rampant capitalism of a highly monopolistic kind.

The ordinary folks, meanwhile, cling to their old socialist values - often with endearing honesty. One day, after a 25-minute journey across town through traffic jams, I offered the taxi driver 100 lire (about £1.20). "That's too much," he said and gave me half of it back.

Government salaries are extraordinarily low - judges earn just 0 a month (which is why they take bribes) - and yet, for those in the loop, there's money sloshing around.

Traditionally-built houses in the old city are turning rapidly into expensive restaurants, usually with English names. One of them, Oxygen, became famous a few months ago for refusing to serve a top American diplomat on political grounds. In the new city there's Pit Stop, a 24-hour cafe offering American pancakes, cappuccinos and hubble-bubble pipes. It's brightly lit and the windows are large, because you pay to be seen there.

Young women sit by the windows, sensuously licking spoons while young men in flashy cars rev their engines outside. In the cellar below Pit Stop there's a night club called Underground and above it Gemini, a smart restaurant where they play country and western music. All three establishments belong to a son of Vice-President Abd al-Halim Khaddam.

I ate at Gemini one evening and the bill, for pasta, salad and a can of cola, came to 540 lire; about £7 in British money, but a day and a half's salary for an unbribed Syrian judge. It's a busy place, nevertheless.

Syria's problem, Mrs X said, is usually seen as a battle between the old guard and the new guard, but it's more complicated than that. Some of the new guard behave much like the old.

Rami Makhlouf, a second cousin of President Bashar, is only 34 but he owns SyriaTel (the main mobile phone company), all the duty-free shops, various hotels, the Dunkin' Donuts franchise and lots more besides. "If you want to start a new company in Syria you've got to meet Rami," Mrs X continued. "There's a new private university starting up, but if I wanted to open a private school myself I would never get permission, even if I had the best teachers." This is one of the main barriers to reform, she said - reform is a threat to those who have got rich through political connections.

Much as ordinary Syrians detest the corruption and cronyism, they do - so far as anyone can judge - strongly support the government in its stand against Washington and Israeli occupation. This, more than anything else, is what gives the regime legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Israel's bombing of an alleged training camp for Palestinians outside Damascus on October 5 has made the average Syrian more determined to resist, not less. "The people will not allow humiliation," Mrs X said.

This is where the US, as usual, seems to be misreading the situation. If only Washington would worry less about Hizbullah and the Palestinian militants and turn its attention to economic terrorism by the Syrian elite, there might be some progress. "By the way," I asked Mrs X, "do you know what has happened to General Kanaan?" "I've no idea," she replied.

Alas, the all-knowing Syrian women's network had let me down, or perhaps it was just reluctant to tell. From further inquiries, it appears that the death of Mustapha al-Tajir, the military intelligence man, had nothing to do with General Kanaan. Mr Tajir suffered a heart attack at a barbecue party in Aleppo and died in hospital a few days later, on August 28. By coincidence, General Kanaan's uncle died on the same day, arousing speculation that both men had been killed in a gunfight. But Kanaan's uncle was far too old to have joined a shoot-out: he was 80 and had been ill for some time.

After several weeks in the rumour mill, the tale had turned into a full-blown attempted coup. At least, that's how it seems - though in Syria you can never be totally sure of anything.

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