Sunday, October 12, 2008

Syrian blogger: "I'm leaving and I'm not coming back"

Someone should be paying more attention to human rights in the Middle East  - not just Israel.

Alexandra Sandels (Apn)  

Two years ago, Mohammad Al-Abdallah's brother Omar was sentenced to five years in prison by the Syrian authorities for criticizing the policies of his national government on an Internet forumblog. In December last year, Mohammad's father Ali Abdallah was arrested when he called for political reform in Syria as a member of the 'Damascus Declaration', a Syrian activist group urging 'democratic and radical change'. He is still in detainment in Syria's Adra prison and suffers from poor health. Now Mohammad speaks out about human rights abuses, censorship, and political corruption in his home country on his newly started blog "I'm leaving and I'm not coming back". APN met with Mohammed in Beirut.

APN: Why do you blog?
: The idea of starting a blog came when I was asked to give a talk on Internet practices in Syria at a conference in Beirut organized by the Samir Kassir Foundation earlier this year. I've had my blog for approximately four months now. I first set up a blog on blogspot but I recently changed it to wordpress since blogspot is blocked in Syria. It's very important for me to reach out to readers inside Syria. I see it as a continuation of what my brother did before he was arrested and imprisoned. Just like him, I mainly write about political and human rights issues in Syria. Also, sometimes you receive important information that you want to share with the world, but you don't have anywhere to publish it. Perhaps you are the first to find out that an activist or a writer has been arrested in Syria, for example. Writing about it on your blog is an excellent way of sharing it with the world.

APN: Do you think blogging can change the world and the situation in your country?
: No one can say with certainty that blogging can or cannot change the situation in a country. I don't know if what we bloggers are doing is "big" or "small" so to say. But I do think that we are having an affect considering the fact that the authorities are doing their best to their keep Internet activists at bay. When a Syrian activist recently was arrested no was talking about his ordeal except the bloggers. They were the ones who first noticed it and the story rose from the blogs.

APN: What do you see as the difference between a blogger and a journalist in your country?
: For me, the biggest difference between bloggers and journalists is that there are no rules or censorship in blogging. You don't have to worry about the word count of your article and editors hanging over your shoulder telling you what's good and bad. Most importantly, you publish exactly what you want. No one picks your words except yourself. Your writings are not subject to censorship before publication which is the case with newspapers. In Syria, journalists are subject to extensive censorship. There are no independent newspapers in Syria. They are all governmental in one way or another.

APN: Do you practice self-censorship?
: I don't practice self-censorship because I don't blog from within Syria. But if I were there, I wouldn't be able to write the way I do. I remember when I was still living in Syria how I used to rewrite some of my pieces, making sure I use the correct titles for high-level politicians when mentioning them in my writings. If you are unlucky, you can actually get persecuted for not doing so. So yes, self-censorship, even among bloggers, is widespread in Syria. At times, I notice how people who are blogging from inside Syria remove comments I've left on their blogs out of fear.

APN: What topics are considered taboo to write about in Syria then?
: The biggest taboo-labeled subjects are, of course, the President and his family, the Syrian security services, the political opposition, and anything that concerns Syria's relations with Hezbollah.

APN: That's a whole lot. How do the Syrian people find out what is ACTUALLY happening in their country?
: The whole concept of 'right to information' does simply not exist in Syria. You will never find out the truth about what is really happening on a governmental level. Blogs are helpful sources of information though.

APN: What topics inspire you?
: My background as a human rights activist inspire me to write about human rights and politics in Syria. I also write extensively on the situation of bloggers in the Arab world.

APN: Have you ever been subject to harassment or intimidation for your activism?
: Not personally since I'm not blogging from inside Syria. My brother, however, is currently serving a five-year prison sentence along with six other Syrian students for criticizing the Syrian authorities on their blog. He has been held in a military prison for two and a half years now. I haven't been able to talk to him since March 2006. Am I scared of being persecuted for my work? That's something you should ask the bloggers in Syria, not me. I'm sure they are scared.

APN: Is there a difference between blogging in English and Arabic in Syria?
: If you're a blogger in Syria and write in English, no one from the authorities will give you a problem. What they don't want is the Syrians reading your criticism of the government, they don't care that much about the outside world. So writing in Arabic, which most of Syrian bloggers do, is what gets you into trouble.

APN: What are your future plans? Do you see yourself continue to blog?
: I will definitely continue blogging. I have no plans to stop. In terms of future plans, I hope to improve my writing skills in English and actually start blogging more in English so that I can reach out to people in Europe and the US. My goal is to continue blogging in both Arabic and English.

Alexandra Sandels is a Beirut-based Swedish journalist
This article comes from the Arab Press Network:

No comments: