Freedom of the Press Shall Survive Mazen Darwish’s Arrest

Mazen Dawrish, along with the other detainees from the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, SCMFE, has recently completed 60 days in the cells of the Air Force Intelligence, AFI, at Al-Mazzeh military airport outside Damascus. The prisoners include, among others: Hussein Ghureir, a father of two and ex-detainee; Hani al-Zaytani, who still hopes to pursue a PhD; Javan Farso, who supports his family, lost his night job; Bassam al-Ahmad (his mother desperately seeks the slightest news of him); Mansour al-Omary, who was dreaming of moving into his new house, but got arrested before setting up the furniture; Abdel Rahman Hammadeh, arrested on his birthday and who had previously been detained by AFI.

On February 16, 2012, AFI officers raided the office of journalist and civil rights activist Darwish in Damascus. They arrested him with the SCMFE’s staff, as well as all of the guests at the office. The detainees were 14 in total. This was not Darwish’s first arrest, nor the first time that his rights were violated. Darwish has been under a travel ban since 2007, and his office has been closed twice by intelligence forces. The second time, it was closed by the General Intelligence on September 14, 2004.

More than a year ago, he presented a request to join the lawyer’s union in Damascus, yet never received any official response in this regard. There was no legal reason to prevent him from joining the union, but security decisions constantly stood in his way.

“Freedom of the press is a value, and to defend it a duty,” is a motto that summarises the essence of SCMFE’s work. The centre was established in 2004 and became the first professional Syrian organisation specialising in journalism to operate inside Syrian territory. SCMFE’s professionalism and efficiency were the reason it became the first Syrian nonprofit organisation to be given consultant status at the United Nations, in 2011.

So who is Darwish and what is SCMFE?

Darwish is an idea, and the centre is the ground on which it becomes true. This is something we cannot be sure that the Syrian authorities have understood. Even though Darwish has previously been subject to numerous harassments, this is the first time the centre, as an organisation, has been targeted. History will eventually judge the Syrian authorities which have carried out this arbitrary arrest, as well as Darwish and the centre he manages. Day after day, the authorities do not hesitate to demonstrate that they do not understand this fact at all.

This violation can be understood as an attempt to disable SCMFE and put an end to Darwish’s work, exactly as Sultan Abdul Hamid II did to Khalil al-Qabbani, the nineteenth century Arab musical theatre pioneer, who emigrated to Egypt after his theatre was burnt down, and as the Syrian authorities did to Omar Amiralay, the documentary film director who was banned from travelling and most of whose movies were banned from being shown. There are other cases in which people paid the price with their own lives to deliver their ideas to each and every Syrian citizen. The Syrian authorities have not hesitated to resort to any form of repression against them.

What these authorities refuse to realise, as shown by experience, is that they cannot suppress an idea, even if they kill its bearer. Theatre in Syria has spread out in different forms and schools, a whole generation that works in documentary cinema has appeared and the same has happened regarding freedom of the press.

Since 2004, the centre has issued its yearly report, which surveys the journalistic environment in Syria, showing the challenges as well the violation of rights that stand in the way of Syrian journalists. The report entitled “The Performance of Syrian Media during the Legislative Elections in 2007” was the first of its kind. It was then followed by another report entitled “The Performance of Syrian Media during the Presidential Referendum in 2007,” in addition to its special report about the internet in Syria titled “Domesticating the Internet.”

The centre’s reports have been accurate, objective and based on impartial statistical surveys; it has refused to tolerate the violation of journalists’ rights, irrespective of the opinions they report. The training workshops organised by the centre aimed at providing training for young people looking for knowledge in journalism outside the realm of rote-learning adopted by universities in Syria. The centre’s initiative to survey print journalism in Syria was also the first of its kind in the Arab world. All of these activities offered a lot of interested young people knowledge about a kind of journalism that was different from the one practiced by the Baath party; the latter has restricted journalism for more than four decades and taken away its role as the “fourth estate”.

In 2004, “freedom of the press is a value, and defending it a duty” was merely an idea. Today, it is embraced as a free and daily popular practice despite the arrest of Darwish and the staff of his centre. When French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed on March 12, 2012 in Homs, members of the revolutionary committees declared a day of mourning in his honour, and then hoisted a banner to salute him during their demonstrations. Later, more than 11 activists lost their lives trying to save British journalist Paul Connery following the bombing that targeted the media centre in Baba Amro, in Homs. This idea was also embodied in several other ways.

Today, there have been several calls to free the SCMFE employees, especially following the news that some of them are facing health problems. Several lawyers are waiting until these detainees appear in court to know the charges against them and make sure they are fine. The detainees are waiting to see the sun again, after snow has fallen twice on Damascene soil, almond and apricot trees have blossomed and women put away radiators and carpets in their homes with the coming of Easter.

The detainees could be released without being legally charged, and they might as well be referred to court. Darwish could – or could not -return to his wife and two children, whom he has been unable to see since they live in another country and he is banned from travelling. He could also return as did the late pacifist activist Gayyath Matar and the child Hamza al-Khateeb. This, however, will be a source of pain that only his family will feel directly, because Darwish is no longer an individual; he has become a group of young people spread out everywhere in Syria.

“Freedom of the press is a value, and defending it a duty” has been put into practice by a people whose women and children have died for the sake of its freedom of speech, thought and choice, and the ability to live in dignity.