the failure of 'freedom of speech' in syria

This was my contribution in Global Voices Summit, I wrote this to present it in the Summit but i had problems with Lebanese security in the air port, so Yazan Badran was kind enough to present it on my behalf:

I thought about what to say in ten minutes about internet censorship in Syria. I thought that listing information and reporting cases will do no good to anyone as we thankfully have Google. So I thought about sharing with you my current thoughts about “freedom of speech” and its reductive meanings as a person who experienced and blogged about censorship in Syria.

First of all, I will assume that many of you did not hear about Free Tariq campaign but perhaps you did hear about Free Karim or Free Foaud al Farhan.

To give you a brief idea about Tariq Baiasi’s case, Tariq is a Syrian blogger who wrote a comment that is critical to the Syrian regime, he left the comment on a website considered suspicious by the government, he was detained on July the 7th. 2007 and a year later on May 11, 2008 he received a verdict of three-year sentence for the following charges:

1- Dwindling the national feeling.

2-Weakening the national ethos.

So the question goes, why did Free Tariq campaign fail?

We failed for so many reasons, the trigger was that one of our members was harassed by the government and was about to be detained like Tariq, so we decided to shut down the campaign website, and I shut down my blog as well for my own safety.

But mainly, and mostly, I think the failure explains exactly why ‘activism,’ ‘volunteerism’, and ‘freedom of speech,’ are just terms without empirical meaning in Syria. The campaign failed because it did not address the people locally. and most importantly, because “freedom of speech” in itself as a term is not and becomes not the “people’s” concern as much as it is the elitists’. To give you an idea what I mean by the elitists: 10 % in Syria use the internet according the Human rights Watch. And mostly it is used by the youth for chatting due to the sexual segregation in most of the Syrian cities and villages except those on the coast like Latakia and Tartus.

To get back to our topic, let me share with you some few Syrian bloggers’ take on Free Tariq campaign and perhaps through them we can get a glance on what I am trying to say:

1- many Syrian bloggers and viewers sent us emails asking what exactly did Tariq write in his comment.

2- Another blogger asked if Tariq is a Muslim Brotherhood fellow due to his beard in his picture on the campaign website.

3- Another blogger told me that since he is “Islamists” and we’re leftists and secularists; let’s leave him to his fellow islamists.

And this was the case, people support who is one of them, and don’t support who isn’t, but most importantly and dangerously I think, people need a reason to support the detainee and oppose abuse.

Many people asked me what Tariq wrote in his comment, but no one knows because the security officers erased everything, and I honestly don’t care if he is leftist or islamists and I don’t care about what he wrote in that comment, someone wrote what he has to say and for that he was detained for a year and now he is serving three year sentence, period.

The regime succeeded in letting people believe that we need good reasons to allow people to speak, now we need to follow a certain standard before we are allowed to speak. We failed because censorship is not just on speech, but on how we think, how we read, how we watch TV and the news, how we make love, get dressed and walk in the street.

The campaign failed because freedom of speech is a borrowed concept, I repeat, it is a borrowed concept and it is performed in an un-local manner, in the sense that we oppose actions without explaining on the ground why they’re wrong in the first place. it is being dealt with as a priority just because the world thinks so while the major issues in syria are not addressed yet. That’s why people won’t move with any campaigns of the sort, because we are facing a larger censorship; censorship of the mind, before that of the speech.

Let’s remember why we campaign in the first place? What are our goals? Intentions? Who we target? Isn’t “change” what we seek? Don’t we want to make a change in our realities? Make a better life? I personally hope so, but now I abandoned this way of changing my reality. In Syria, I think an economical reform is only what paves the way into other forms of reforms.

In Syria, virtual censorship is authentically virtual, because the true censorship is religious and social before it is political, it is inside our homes, schools, jobs, Mosques and churches, it is in the streets and everyday. The challenge is to address people because they’re the change, not the governments, and activism in Syria addresses its opposers and itself only.

To experience censorship means you don’t get the chance to experience life. And that’s the case in Syria, at least to me, before we defend speech, activists need to learn how to defend life, I am not a life lover though! (hinting to a lebanese party.) ;-)

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6 thoughts on “the failure of 'freedom of speech' in syria

  1. abukareem says:

    Razan,

    I find your post on freedom of speech a little disconcerting. It is not because I disagree with much of what you say, but the tone is different than the fiery Razan whose posts I used to read a couple of years ago. There is a sense of melancholy, a sense of defeatism, that nothing will ever change.

    Some of what you say seems now more like what the rulers in Syria want us to believe:

    “it (free speech) is being dealt with as a priority just because the world thinks so while the major issues in syria are not addressed yet.”…”In Syria, I think an economical reform is only what paves the way into other forms of reforms.”

    I think it is chicken and egg thing. You cannot have true reform -in any field- if you don’t have free speech. How can you have reform, when you as a citizen cannot tell those in power what reform is needed and whether the reform they impose is working? I truly believe that reform and free speech happen simultaneously. You are right that much of the censorship is societal but I think some of that is because self-censorship has become part of the national character as there now two generations of Syrians who have not known what freedom of expression means.

    Don’t give up Razan.

  2. Sarah says:

    You’re probably right that “true censorship is religious and social before it is political, it is inside our homes, schools, jobs, Mosques and churches, it is in the streets and everyday.” This is true all over the world, and not just in Syria; I think legal censorship is more often the target of reform efforts because, let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to change a law than to change the way people think. Legal segregation been mostly done away with in the U.S., and yet racism persists. It’s not illegal to criticize Israel in the U.S., and yet to do so is suicide for any politician. How do we address things like that? They’re much more insidious and harder to change. But unless legal censorship is lessened, it’s difficult to make many strides toward undermining those other social and religious forms of censorship.

  3. ash-shakkak says:

    Good, thoughtful post. But what do you mean “freedom of speech is an imported concept?”

    افضل الجهاد كلمة حق عند سلطان جائر

    “The best form of jihad is a word of truth to a tyrannical ruler.” (Hadith No. 4011 from the Sunan Ibn Majah)

    And Abu Bakr:
    “Oh people, I have been entrusted with authority over you, but I am not the best of you. Help me if I am right and correct me if I am wrong.” (recounted by Abd al-Malik Ibn Hashim in his Sirah al-Nabawiyya)

    I don’t mean to get all Islami on you. I’m just bringing these up as old examples. More current examples would be in the constitutions of Arab countries.

  4. yass says:

    آسف للرد بالعربية لكن كتابتي الانكليزية “فايتة بالحيط” .. أعتقد أن الكاتبة أصابت كبد الحقيقة عندما أشارت إلى أننا لا شعوريا ندافع عن الذين هم من فكرنا أو من يحملون خطابا يناسب فكرنا و أيديولوجيتنا, و هذا أمر خاطئ.. فمجرد أن هذا الشخص يعاني من اضطهاد نتيجة فكره فإن هذا الأمر ينهي أي اختلاف أو نزاع ايديولوجي معه,هذا الاختلاف يمكن العودة إليه عندما ينتفي القهر و الاضطهاد

    يقول فولتير:”قد أختلف معك بالرأي, لكنني مستعد لأن أضحي بحياتي في سبيل أن تقول رأيك”.. لا نريد أن يضحي أحد بحياته, أو بحريته أو بماله.. انما فقط التضامن مع من قال لا, و يقول لا .. و سوف يقول لا

    الحرية لأسرى الضمير

    الحرية لطارق بياسي

    الحرية لصديقي و زميلي و أخي كريم عربجي

    الحرية للجميع… و السعادة للجميع

    آسف مرة أخرى للكتابة بالعربية (لو اسباني كان مشي الحال) :)

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