Official voice of Damascus comes cold off the presses

Robert Fisk continues his series on Syria with a visit to a newspaper that leaves its readers in little doubt
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The Independent Online
Damascus - The Syria Times arrives under the hotel bedroom door of every foreigner in Damascus. It makes unique reading. The world outside may rage at Syria's gates - threats from the Israelis, further condemnation by the United States for "supporting terrorism", Amnesty International reports decrying human rights abuses - but the Syria Times is there to assure you that all is well in the best of all possible worlds.

And so, in a country where President Hafaz al-Assad's Baath "correctionist movement" (CM for aficionados) - the bloodless coup d'etat in which Assad took power in 1970 - decides the future of Syria, the reader will not be bothered by editorial doubt.

On the day its editor, Walid Shehadeh, agreed to see me, the paper's domestic news headlines read as follows: "People's Assembly proud of CM's achievements", "Damascus University Celebrates Glorious Achievement" and - an imperishable, Brezhnev-style title above columns four and five of page two - "Masses Continue Celebrations of Correctionist Movement Anniversary, More Projects Inaugurated."

There was an arts page - "Cultural Activities Mark the 26th Anniversary of the Correctionist Movement" - and two pages of foreign news (in which the word "occupied" had been placed before an agency dispatch from the West Bank), including a report of frightful new atrocities in Algeria and a clutch of editorials asking whether the Israeli Prime Minister will abide by UN resolutions for a total withdrawal from all occupied Arab land. Conclusion: No.

So when I called on Mr Shehadeh in the offices of his sister paper, the Baath-party run Tishreen, there was only the old, familiar smell of hot ink and newsprint to remind me of what we used to call Fleet Street.

I went straight to the point. Wasn't the Syria Times a trifle boring? Mr Shehadeh smiled at me with not a little impatience. "I think we have to remember that we have a cause, the cause of our occupied territories - Israel's greed and expansionism occupying Golan and southern Lebanon and the other Arab lands," he began. "I don't think that anybody can ignore these facts. We have to talk about them every day and every night. It flows out of our blood. We have to know we are in danger. Perhaps people are bored because we say the same things, but we are in danger. We can be invaded at any time."

This was the authentic voice of every Syria Times editorial. "We have to catch anything that says something about the Israeli problem - but apart from this, I don't think the Syrian press is boring. Our literature pages, our features, talk about peace. However, for almost the whole of this century, we have fought against colonialism and aggressive conspiracies from the outside. We expect a hostile [foreign] media and hostile attacks from the West. The minister of information [Mohamed Salman, a fellow Baath party member] is encouraging our press to be brighter and livelier."

And more lively - in Syrian terms - Tishreen has become. Its foreign press reports are accurately translated and its criticism of domestic problems (a la Brezhnev) is growing. A few days earlier, Walid Mimari, in his daily "Rain Hour" column, had taken the minister of electricity to task for failing to alleviate long daily power cuts in three Damascus suburbs, and condemned the governor of Damascus for failing to impose a smoking ban on commuter and inter-city buses.

Three days later, there was criticism of Damascus University's English department for the behaviour of students who were smoking and singing. Two pages further on, Ghassan Salameh lampooned the authorities for the atrociously low pay of government civil servants.

Destined for foreigners, the Syria Times is not even as daring as Tishreen. Could Mr Shehadeh therefore really justify a media controlled by the party? "We are in line with the policy laid down by the party," Mr Shehadeh replied. "And I believe, because of the situation in the Middle East and because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its various repercussions, it's much better to have the press and media strengthened together under the control of a body which makes the policy."

But what would that policy be if there was a real and just peace, I asked. "It's a hypothetical question but when this happens, there will be new talk, new thinking. If there is peace, the policy will change." And Mr Shehadeh proceeded to remind me of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the break- up of "greater Syria" after the First World War, the French creation of the state of Lebanon from Syria. And suddenly, he wanted to talk about Winston Churchill.

"I didn't like him but I admired him. I think his behaviour in his country during the Second World War was admirable. He defended his country and showed his love of his homeland. This is part of our own feelings. Isn't the word 'patriotism' derived from the Latin 'father'?"

But what was the point, I asked, in having a joint security pact with Beirut when Syria could do nothing to prevent Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon last April? "If Syria had responded - militarily, I mean - and sent its aircraft and tanks to defend Lebanon, what would have happened? Do you think the Israelis would have said: 'Oh, the Syrians have come, so we will retreat'? No. It would have been war. The Syrian leadership adopted a wise policy - if they engaged in this conflict, there would have been an unstoppable situation. But at the same time, we never stopped our diplomatic pressure - with France, America - to establish an undertaking, and we ended with a memorandum of understanding, a good Syrian achievement.

"They made the Europeans and Americans recognise that it is the right of the people of Lebanon to resist occupation. A monitoring committee [with Syria] was created."

So the state of war continues, like the Syria Times. Next day, its editorial was headlined: "Israel defies peace, international law." Plus ca change.