Syria’s English newspaper goes out with a bang

Last week saw the last edition of Baladna English, the only English language newspaper still operating in Syria. Although independent by name, reality contradicted this. After months of reporting in line with regime requirements, the last edition deliberately stepped out of line. In two pages of unprecedented criticism, the newspaper had its final say.

Syrian officials are described as ‘disconnected’, particularly the minister for economy Nidal al-Shaar who just last week said that “the Syrian economy is functioning with great efficiency despite the pressures.” The reality of life in Syria disputes this claim, with prices of almost everything up by at least 50% according to the author, the newspaper’s managing editor Basel Aal Bannoud. But “if you found the economic picture to be gloomy, then you should know that the political picture is even darker…. The problem is actually bigger than any initiative or reforms short a of a regime change” the article argued.

This kind of language is unprecedented for Syrian media in general, and Baladna English in particular. I worked at Baladna English for a couple of months in the summer of 2010 and the newspaper never uttered a word of criticism against the regime. Although providing ground-breaking coverage, for Syria, by tackling local issues such as prostitution, any government responsibility for such a phenomenon was always eschewed. Most local news came directly from SANA, the Syrian News Agency. In regional articles, paragraphs that were critical of Syria were often dismissed as “bad writing” and edited out. That the newspaper suffered from censorship, however, was always denied. Yet when writers know that their work will pass through 3 different censors before reaching the printing press, self-censorship takes hold. In such an environment it is unsurprising that staff turnover was high. Foreign employees tended to stay a few months at the most, while local staff translated SANA coverage and wrote about sports and entertainment.

As the protests have grown, most Arabic newspapers have disappeared from newsstands, though often remaining available online. A new media law which supposedly has been in effect since August 28 removed the need for state censors to read every publication before it went to print. However, the new measures failed their first test at the end of November when Baladna, the Arabic sister publication of Baladna English, published harsh criticism of the Baath party and the handling of the protests. The issue was recalled immediately.

Foreign press has been less restrained and foreign language press is still available, including publications with screaming headlines such as ‘Assad commits massacre.’ Syria Today, a local monthly magazine, has become increasingly critical in its coverage, as well as the media’s ability to operate in Syria. But no other local publication has pushed the limit as far as Baladna English did last week.

When Baladna English was launched in 2009, the Guardian hailed it as marking ‘the latest stage in the liberalisation of the Syria’s [sic] media.” However, the United Group, which published the paper, has Assad crony Majd Suleim as its chairman, the son of a former head of Syria’s infamous mukhabarat, or intelligence service. Suleim was listed by the US congressional Research Service as a ‘key member of the Assad family and other elites’ in August 2011, though has been spared from sanctions so far.

Nevertheless, the company is feeling the pinch. In April 2011, Baladna English newspaper started to appear on a weekly, rather than daily, basis and staff was cut back to only three. All the former employees had left by this point, save the local news and sports editor.

This editor’s Facebook updates illustrate the newspaper’s decline. A few months ago it showed him, and other Baladna English staff, smiling and attending pro-Assad rallies. Following the newspaper’s closure his status read: Focus of the gallows, mister president?

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