Neighbors / No Media Like Official Media

Bashar al-Assad likes journalists. That is to say, his journalists, whom he at times invites to one-on-one conversations in which he holds forth on life and on the press. For the first time since he entered the office six years ago, Assad assembled Syrian journalists in the People's Palace, where he lectured them on the tenets of his presidential doctrine. "We must not give up on the official press," said Assad. "A need for such a press exists in every country in the world, even in Britain and the United States." In his mind, of course, these countries represent the pinnacle of freedomm of expression and freedom of the press.

Senior representatives of the official Syrian newspapers Tishrin, Al-Baath and Al-Thawra, as well as many working for the state radio and television stations, are familiar with Assad's dogmatic views on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. They heard him speak about them in his inauguration speech in 2000, in which he explained that the role of the fourth estate is to defend the state and uphold the unity of the homeland.

Nothing has changed in his doctrine since then. "A new role should be carved out for the official media, one that would be in line with global developments," the president explained recently. "We should rid ourselves of the old professional habits, and adopt new working methods that will take into account the psychology of the contact with the masses, and use the principles of the media game to create the desired interaction, which will present Syria's positions properly ... The media have to keep abreast of foreign press reports so that they will be able to confront them."

It is difficult to know what concerns Assad more: the foreign media, including the Lebanese press, which he claims is plotting against Syria; the Syrian intellectuals in the opposition; or perhaps the reports issued last week by the International Monetary Fund, according to which Syrian oil could run out in 2010, thus causing a deficit of $4.5 billion in the state's coffers.

One answer to this question may be found in the intensive activity of the Syrian armed forces, who have been busy the past month arresting the local intellectuals who in mid-May signed a petition entitled the "Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut declaration." This petition was the outgrowth of joint discussions between Syrian and Lebanese men of letters, whose object is to build a new infrastructure for cooperation between the two nations. The dozens of signatories of the petitions are well-known personalities who have in the past taken part in organizing such protests and creating "culture salons" in Syria. These figures include Michel Kilo, Al-Tayeb Tizini, Riyahd al-Turk, Burhan Ghalyun, Anwar al-Bunni and dozens of other Syrians, who live in Syria and are not afraid to publicly express their opinions. Some of them even run human rights organizations. Others run private online forums, or host "literature encounters" in private homes, during which political matters are debated.

However, Assad seems to understand that he cannot merely arrest these opposition figures. He thus produced an impressive petition of his own last week, on which appear the signatures of 117 Syrian intellectuals, who take the opposition to task and denounce the others for harming the nation's unity, particularly at such a sensitive and dangerous time for Syria. These intellectuals express their disapproval of the respect the intellectuals accorded to U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who "is known for his hostile and wicked anti-Islamic and anti-Arab opinions. The respect he is accorded is itself evidence that the members of this group are walking along the same path as the American-Israeli enterprise." In short, the message seemed to be that those people are traitors against whom the loyal media should be activated.

Assad was criticized for his petition from an unexpected source: the well-known Egyptian Islamic intellectual and journalist Fahmi Huweidi, one of the most strident critics of the United States, who commented in the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

"We are humiliated by the actions of the Syrian government," he wrote. "Yes, we, who are aware of the scheming and extortion perpetrated against Syria by the United States and Israel. Yet I, who am among those who support and defend Syria, am at a loss when I come to defend it, because I find in this regime things that are not worthy of defending. I refer to the recent wave of arrests of Syrian intellectuals whose sole crime was that they opposed the official line."

Huweidi not only threw salt on the wounds of the Syrian regime; he also made sure to rub it in. He contended that the actions taken by Assad were similar to those of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who arrested intellectuals in his country when the latter disagreed with him. Indeed Huweidi was himself a victim of Sadat's crusade against the press, having been dismissed from a senior position in the newspaper Al-Ahram due to his opinions. Assad is in the habit of reading most of the columns written about him. Perhaps this explains why he convened his journalists last week?