He does not wish to be identified because he believes that the long arm of the Syrian government will reach him anywhere in the world. Take his word for it, he said, he knew them better than anyone else. He ought to; he was once a censor in the ministry of information. He is also a writer and journalist who would like to continue as such.
Censorship as we know it now in Syria began with the first coup d’état in 1947 which was led by Husni al-Zaim, and which was followed by a series of coups. With each new coup, censorship increased and was further tightened. By the time of the last coup, led by Hafiz al-Asad in 1970, the whole state structure was transformed into one large intelligence and censorship apparatus.
As early as elementary school, files are kept on each student and transferred to secondary schools and so on. This system, started in 1979, ensures that the authorities have records of all your activities, friends, and other important details. Teachers and headmasters are responsible for the compilation of those files. Some teachers chose to quit their jobs rather than act as intelligence officers in schools.
In the universities, half of the academic staff are, in fact, working for the intelligence service. Nowadays in Syria, a person is not innocent until proven guilty. It is the accused’s responsibility to prove themselves innocent of any charges raised by the intelligence.
There are no journalists in Syria anymore. Real Syrian journalists are either dead, or living in exile, working for other Arab periodicals published in the West or the Middle East. Meanwhile, a whole new generation of “journalists” has been raised by the state. In 1975, for example, the state introduced a university degree for journalists with both faculty and curriculum chosen and carefully monitored by the state. That is understandable, as reporters and writers later became government employees. Editors have to be members of the ruling Baath Party.
In 1961 I became editor of a weekly magazine, Al-Mawqif al-Arabi, then the editor of a children’s magazine as well as of another cultural weekly. Those publications are all owned by the government, and every time I got out of line I was removed from my job and given a desk job at the ministry of information, either doing nothing or working in the office of a censor or just staying at home and cashing my salary.
The crunch came in 1977 as a result of a current affairs column I wrote alternately with a colleague on one of the dailies. After I wrote a critical piece about the shah of Iran, a decree was issued to ban me from further writing. I was fired from my position as editor of the cultural magazine Al-Ma‘rifa because I published a selection of the works of a 19th-century writer that called on people to refuse living as meek subjects under the rule of an oppressor. Even though the famous 19th-century verse was available in any Syrian or Arab library, I was called by the intelligence office to be questioned about that as well as about a column I wrote for an Arab publication in London, Al-Dustur. I was told at the end of the interrogation that writers like me have no place in Syria. So I left my country for good.
The result of such strict policies was that Syrian journalists made an exodus to the Gulf states or Europe, where they tried to find work on various Arab publications and preserve their profession. Those who did not want to leave home left their profession. It is 26 years since the situation started to deteriorate, and all this makes a journalist in Syria an extinct species. Syrian journalists are either very old, dead or exiled.
There used to be a number of privately owned newspapers and magazines, but now all periodicals are owned by the government and its various departments. The major papers are Al-Baath, the organ of the ruling party, published in Damascus; Tishrin, which represents the presidential palace, also published in the capital; and Al-Thawra, published by the ministry of information in Damascus. There are local papers in the cities of Horns, Aleppo, Hama and Latakia, all published by the state.
The ministry of information and the “official” Writers Union each publish four magazines and the Army publishes five. There are no underground publications in Syria.
As for Arabic language and foreign periodicals published outside Syria, the general rule is that they are all banned from entering the country. However, a foreign publication may apply for distribution in Syria by submitting an application to the ministry of information together with copies of the publication. The censor’s office in the ministry of information may or may not respond, but unless the publication receives permission, it may not be distributed. But even permission to distribute does not mean the publication has an automatic right to do so, since each issue has to obtain the censor’s prior approval. If there is an offending article, the issue is seized. Some papers, like Al-Safir of Lebanon, often print stories which the Syrian government considers important alongside items that may be offensive to the Syrian authorities. Usually such an issue is permitted after the offending item has been deleted.
The law restricting the import of periodicals, passed in 1974, was later extended to include books. Before a book can be distributed, it has to be submitted to the censor’s office, which stamps its approval or disapproval. Any publication sent to an individual in the mail is censored by a special office established by the ministry at the post office. Tapes, records, and video cassettes are all handled by the censor’s office in the ministry of culture.
There are private publishing houses in Syria, but this means nothing since all manuscripts have to be presented to the ministry of information, which will stamp each page it approves. After publication, the book, along with the manuscript, must again be presented to the censor to check that nothing has been changed or added. This applies to everything published in Syria. There are also government publishing houses which print the books of several semi-governmental organizations such as the Writers Union or those of the ministry of culture. If there is any question regarding the publication of a book, it is sent to the cultural office of the Baath Party to see whether it is fit for publication.
A list of censored books is regularly sent to the political security department of the ministry of the interior. This department, in turn, makes spot checks on all bookshops to ensure that no banned book is on sale or even in stock. Members of this department wear civilian clothes.
Books and periodicals brought in from abroad are usually confiscated. These publications are then listed and the list must be taken to the ministry of information to be stamped. On leaving the country one must hand the list to the authorities and only then are the books handed back. No books or periodicals can be taken out of the country without prior permission of the ministry of information, which takes down the title, author, and the name of the person who wishes to take the book abroad.
All key positions in radio and television are manned by members of the Baath Party. However, everything from songs to scientific programs and news has to first pass the different censorship committees. So to keep in touch with the world, Syrians listen to foreign stations for news, like the BBC World Service, Radio Monte Carlo, Voice of America, or Egyptian Radio.
The film censorship committee checks the script of each film before permission to shoot is granted. It then reviews the film after it has been produced to see that the screenplay has not been changed. Some movies are produced by the state, through “the General Organization for the Cinema,” and are subject to censorship within this organization. Like books and periodicals, there is a law that makes the import of films a state monopoly. Nothing in Syria evades the censor — even Friday sermons in the mosques have to be written down and presented to the ministry of religious affairs for approval before being preached.
A major difficulty is that there are no guidelines whatsoever for what cannot be included in artistic works. It is all according to someone’s whim: the censor, a prominent party member, the president, the president’s brother, and so on. In some instances, when the authorities like to be regarded as “revolutionary,” they permit some songs, like those of Shaikh Imam of Egypt, or the poetry of the Iraqi, Mudhafar al-Nawab, not permitted anywhere else in the region, as long as they are not about the Syrian Baath Party. They even permit the famous Syrian actor, Ghawar al-Tushi, to stage plays critical of Arab governments as a whole and the lack of democracy in the Middle East. This does not directly attack them and gives Syrian art an air of reality which at present is absent from all other aspects of Syrian life.
This account first appeared in Index on Censorship (London), June 1987. Reprinted by permission.