Middle East

Syrian protesters set up celebrity 'list of shame'

pop star Asala Nasri
Image caption Public figures who live outside of Syria, such as pop star Asala Nasri, have greater freedom to speak out

The uprising in Syria has divided the county's thriving artistic community, with a handful of musicians, actors and directors coming out in support of protesters calling for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad.

For years, Syria's actors and musicians have been one of its most precious exports, proving a hit with audiences across the Arab world, and making Syria something of a centre for television and music production.

Syria's soap operas are especially popular, and are beamed into homes across the region.

Since the anti-government unrest erupted in March, relatively few Syrian celebrities have shown their opposition to the government's crackdown by appearing in protests and speaking out in interviews.

Those who have dared to speak out, however, have put themselves at risk of arrest and even violent retribution.

In August, the prominent cartoonist Ali Farzat had his fingers broken - reportedly by security forces personnel - after he published cartoons mocking the president.

The composer Malek Jandali said the next month that his parents, who live in Syria, were beaten by supporters of the government after he dedicated a song to protesters at a US concert.

Image caption Cartoonist Ali Farzat was reportedly beaten up by security forces personnel

And Fadwa Sulayman, an actress from President Assad's ruling Alawite sect, was filmed alongside protesters in November in the restive central city of Homs. It was not long, however, before she was forced to go into hiding.

Prominent figures who live abroad, and are not subject to the scrutiny of the notorious security services, have been more able to criticise the government.

The pop star Asala Nasri comes from a family of distinguished Syrian musicians, and her voice is known across the Arab world.

In May, she said: "Even if the government oppressed one person out of a thousand, then… we [artists] would follow the people".

'Important reforms'

While the principled stand of a few artists has grabbed headlines, the reality is that the majority of Syria's artistic community has kept quiet about the protests, and many have even come out publicly to back Mr Assad.

Sulaf Fawakherji, who has acted in some of Syria's best loved dramas, has spoken out to state her support for the president.

Image caption Actor Duraid Lahham has surprised some by speaking out in support of the president

In a TV interview, she said she wanted Mr Assad to stay in power because "the government, especially President Bashar Assad, has been very supportive of Syrian artists".

But she added that this was not the only reason she supported the government, pointing to what she called "important reforms" over the past 10 years.

Perhaps the biggest shock came when the actor Duraid Lahham voiced his support for the president.

Lahham is known in the Arab world for playing roles in films satirising authoritarian regimes.

However, Mr Assad's most ardent celebrity fan is the actress Raghda, who has starred alongside Lahham in several films.

Speaking on television in Egypt, she claimed that she had supported the protests which forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down in February, but that she did not back those taking place against the government in Syria, arguing that the situation in her country was different.

Raghda recently told a Kuwaiti newspaper that she would support "the devil, or any Arab dictator who makes a stand against Nato and Israel and the USA".

Silent majority

Celebrity support for President Assad has sparked a backlash on social media websites.

Opponents of Mr Assad have set up a Facebook page called the "Syrian List of Shame", which names and criticises public figures who have pledged their support for the government.

The page has attracted more than 30,000 members since it was set up and is growing in popularity.

The page's owners post photographs of the public figures featured on the list, insulting and taunting them for opposing the protests.

A similar page has been set up for neighbouring Lebanon, where a number of public figures have expressed sympathies for the Syrian government.

Although more and more of Syria's artistic elite are speaking out to support protests, they are still outnumbered by those who are guarding their silence.

It is possible that if the government's position becomes weaker and Syria's opposition gains more ground, more singers and actors will take a stance, but for the moment it seems most are biding their time to see what happens.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.