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Censors ease up on Syrian press

New information minister encourages more critical media in a country known for its censored press.

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Long scorned as tools of state propaganda, Syria's print and television media are experiencing the most thorough shake-up in more than four decades.

Journalists are growing bolder as traditional red lines blur, taboos are broken, and fear of imprisonment over printing material critical of the regime recedes. Although censorship still exists, the easing of restrictions is giving new freedom to journalists and paving the way for a more robust media.

Unusually, the impetus for change is coming from Syria's recently appointed information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah, a former newspaper editor.

"This is new, this is very new," says Ziad Haydar, Damascus correspondent of the Al-Arabiya Arabic satellite channel and Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper.

The changes rippling through the Syrian media were illustrated last month with the publication in Syria's Tishreen newspaper of an article containing unprecedented criticism of the feared mukhabarat, or secret intelligence service.

The author, independent journalist Hakam al-Baba, described in the article the treatment he received from the mukhabarat three years ago after writing an article deploring the lack of press freedom in Syria.

"I spent over two weeks with one of the security [agencies], every day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., during which I listened to threats, warnings, accusations, and interrogation regarding [my] connections," he wrote.

Mr. al-Baba's article was published with the approval of Mr. Dakhlallah, even though it also singled out the information minister for criticism. The article, which was condemned by regime supporters, had been destined for publication in the more liberal Lebanese press on the assumption that it would be censured in Syria.

"I think Dakhlallah wanted it published in Syria because it would have more impact here," al-Baba says.

Syria's press has been regarded as little more than a banal mouthpiece for the state since the 1963 coup by the ruling Baath Party. The state's stranglehold on the media began to loosen in the wake of Bashar al-Assad becoming president in 2000. In 2002, the first privately owned political weekly, Abyad wa Aswad (White and Black), was granted a license and has since become a keen critic of government performance. "The general trend is for change now.... If we want this country to progress, we have to focus on the bad points," says Ayman al-Daquq, who edits the magazine.

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