Pushing the boundaries of Syrian media

Image caption,
Honey al-Sayyed talks about sex education and child abuse on al-Madina FM

The media in Syria is tightly controlled and topics such as politics, sex and religion have been taboo for many years, but there are signs the restrictions are loosening slightly.

For decades a few state-run radio stations were the only choices available in Syria.

But in 2005, the government passed a law allowing private stations to be set up.

There are now 15 commercial radio stations broadcasting across most of the country and, in their own subtle ways, they are pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech.

Sham FM's daily talkshow Hiwar al-Youm (Today's Discussion) regularly focuses on local government issues, with phone-ins and interviews with politicians.

While ministers have gone on radio shows before, it was usually to deliver the government line.

The fact that a debate is taking place and that politicians are now being challenged on air is different.

Honey al-Sayyed, who presents the morning show on al-Madina FM, says there's more freedom to speak out now.

"We tackle a lot of topics from sex education to child abuse. We can talk about everything - except politics and religion."

Jail terms

Notice that she says they can speak about "everything", before contradicting herself. That is the reality of the media in Syria.

Image caption,
Haigo and Salah present the morning show on English-language Mix FM

A number of journalists have been imprisoned. Some were recently convicted of spreading false information about the state.

Human rights groups say the jail terms are bogus and have repeatedly called for Syria's press laws to be reformed.

But the Syrian government disagrees.

"The fact in itself that Syrian media has all the freedoms it needs to openly criticise the government, is a tremendous improvement in Syrian society," says Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari.

It's not just radio where there have been changes.

Besides the three official newspapers, there are now two private political dailies, although it is understood that both are owned by businessmen with close links to the regime.

Ziad Haidar, the editor at the private al-Watan daily, believes that self-censorship exists everywhere around the world.

"There is a limit to what you can say, not only in Syria, but around the world - legitimate regulations and print laws that you have to abide by. There are also social rules that you have to respect," says Mr Haidar.

While some papers can get away with a certain level of political criticism, radio stations can only apply for an entertainment license.

And there is no such thing as a current affairs radio station in Syria.

Mixed reception

Media analyst Ibrahim Yakhour says radio station owners' priorities may not coincide with freedom of speech.

"The majority of them are businessmen. They have no cause to defend [so] they run very easy, non-problematic programmes."

On the sandy beaches of Tartus, on the Mediterranean Sea, women in headscarves and T-shirts mingle with girls in bikinis, while men play racquetball or smoke sheesha (the water pipe). A radio blares in the background, but have the changes been noticed?

"Before we couldn't discuss the relationships between boys and girls, and now we can... of course it's not enough," says one man who was jogging along the shore.

"It's a new thing for Syria to hear about politics. It's really nice to hear about new things by radio," says a girl playing racquetball.

"They're trying their best, but [there is] nothing for culture or knowledge. I think most of them are just for entertainment," said another man just coming out of the water.

Despite the changes to radio programmes, the audience can't agree on whether they go far enough.

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