Syrians Get First \'Unofficial\' Newspaper for 38 Years
A Syrian newspaper, not controlled by the governing Baath party, made its debut Thursday in a development which officials have described as a sign of greater political freedom in Syria.
Sawt al-Shaab (the voice of the people), run by the Syrian Communist Party (SCP), is the first newspaper to be sold on Damascus newsstands not to be affiliated with the regime since the Baath seized power in 1963.
The paper's appearance "is a step on the road to greater democratic freedoms," SCP political bureau member Ammar Bakdash told AFP.
The newspaper, which sells for 10 Syrian pounds (20 US cents), will be printed bi-monthly but aims to turn into a weekly, he added.
Bakdash pledged that Sawt al-Shaab's space would be open to everyone and not just members of his party, on one condition: "that they do not deviate from the line of fighting imperialism and Zionism."
The Baath gave permission to the members of the National Progressive Front (NPF), the coalition of parties which it leads, to print newspapers in late November.
The occasion of Sawt al-Shaab's first issue will "reinforce the freedom of expression and of the press," Al-Baath, the ruling party organ, wrote Thursday.
The original Sawt al-Shaab, established in 1937, was closed by the Syrian government in 1947. The SCP published another newspaper, al-Nur, in 1954 but was shut down in 1958 when Syria and Egypt formed their short-lived United Arab Republic.
When the Baathists took power in 1963, they created two newspapers: the party organ al-Baath and the state ath-Thwara as a state paper. The regime created another publication, Tishrin, during the 1970s.
Mahmud Salama, editor in chief of ath-Thwara, called the decision to let NPF parties publish newspapers a sign of greater freedom in Syria.
"The press of the NPF is not obliged to limit its expression to opinions of the component parties ... it can take in political and social currents to which they are close," Salama wrote in a recent editorial.
Since his ascension to power after his father's death in June, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has embarked upon a path towards reform, notably with the aim of modernizing the economy.
Saluma said the various parties could express different political views from those of the Baath through their newspapers and provide a channel for other opinions, provided they "respect the constitution, social peace and national unity."
In Syrian political code, this would exclude the country's banned Islamic groups.
In its Thursday edition, Sawt al-Shaab pointed its criticism towards one of Bashar's pet projects: the decision to authorize private banks.
"The project of private banks breaks the state's monopoly and permits international finance to import and export foreign currency, exposing the country to financial insecurity," warned the newspaper.
Al-Baath for its part rejected reports in foreign Arab newspapers that there was dissension over some of Bashar's reforms between modernizes and the party "old guard".
The reforms would continue, it said, adding that decrees and decisions by the authorities would bring about essential changes in the fields of the economy, culture, education and administration.
"The measures taken by the government to strengthen the role of political parties by authorizing them to publish newspapers will strengthen freedom of expression and the press." -- DAMASCUS (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)