Syria expands "iron censorship" over Internet

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian authorities have ordered Internet cafe users to reveal their identity, the latest measure in their “iron censorship” of cyberspace, a Syrian monitoring group said on Thursday.

Security officials ordered Internet cafe owners this week to take down the names and identification cards of their clients as well as the times they come and leave, Mazen Darwich, head of the Syrian Media Centre, told Reuters.

The records are to be presented regularly to the authorities, who targeted bloggers and Internet writers in recent months as part of a renewed campaign against dissent.

“These steps are designed to terrorise Internet users and spread fear and self censorship in violation of the right to privacy and free expression,” Darwich said.

“The government has been methodical in extending the scope of its iron censorship,” he said.

There was no comment from the government. Officials had said Internet controls were needed to guard against what they described as attempts to spread sectarian divisions and “penetration by Israel”.

Several Internet cafes confirmed the new regulations.

Restrictions have also increased on surfing the World Wide Web and online publishing. An increasing number of Syrians who have voiced opinions on the Internet were being jailed, Darwich said.

The Syrian Media Centre, an independent body that tracks curbs on media, said at least 153 Internet sites are blocked in Syria with bans expanding over the past few weeks to Googleblog and the Arab Maktoobblog.

“Open forums have been used by thousands of Syrians to launch a counteroffensive against the government’s curbs on public expression,” Darwich said.

The forums also provide a way for users to share information on how to bypass government blocking of sites through what is known as Internet proxies, he said.

Facebook and YouTube are already banned as well as sites for Syrian opposition parties, Lebanese newspapers and Lebanese groups opposed to what they call Syrian interference in Lebanon. The site of the Saudi Asharq al-Awsat newspaper is blocked although the daily has a correspondent in Damascus.

The government last year ordered Internet sites based in Syria to provide the “clear identity and name” of those behind any article or comment they publish.

A poet is facing trial at a state security course for publishing articles on a civic society forum. Another writer spent a week in prison for an Internet piece about fuel and electricity shortages, Syrian human rights organisations said.

A teacher from the farming province of Reka is facing trial for criticising online what he described as patronage and nepotism in the state-run education system.

The Internet spread in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his late farther, Hafez al-Assad in 2000. The country is ruled by the Baath Party, which took power in a coup in 1963, imposed emergency law and banned all opposition.

Editing by Dominic Evans