Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Media City

This item on the new medi city was submitted by Tim:

Syria's newspapers and broadcasters look to have taken a step forward in recent days, with the finishing touches being made to the country's first media cluster zone.

Located in Damascus, a Media City in the Dubai mould is to be administered by the Free Zones Directorate, a development that could significantly alter the country's media landscape - or at least represent a solid follow-up on five years of cautious reform.

Located on a 65,000-sq-metre site in the Damascus International Fairgrounds, the free zone could also contribute to the larger task of explaining Syria's point of view to potential investors, according to Media City spokespeople.

The facility will help Syria's tech-starved media companies by offering tax exemptions along with the ability to import technical equipment and transfer revenue in and out of the country.

Media City's private companies will also be required to pay as much as 22% of their advertising revenue to the state-owned Arab Advertising Organisation, however, and distribute their product through a state agency that charges 40% on all publications sold.

While the jury is still necessarily out on Media City, clearly there is no love lost between private operators and one of the alternatives for media consumers, SANA, the country's national news agency.

As the only source of information on the government's day to day activities, SANA is indispensable, but the quality is terrible, Waddah Abd-Rabbo, editor-in-chief of the privately owned al-Iqtisaddiya, told OBG.

Syrian media workers often also complain that the prevailing press law makes little distinction between the public and national interest, complaints that Suleiman's comments are unlikely to assuage.

Meanwhile, the state news agency aside, Syria's vibrant print private sector has grown to include over 140 magazines. But in broadcasting, there remains only one private television station, Cham TV. This disparity insiders attribute to a combination of censorship and Syrians' greater daily access to the cheaper televisual medium, as the degree to which a medium is censored is directly related to the access Syrians have to it, says Ibrahim Hamidi, Syria bureau chief for the London-based al-Hayat newspaper.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Syria's media has found greater room to breathe in recent years, heralding, some hope, the return of a press corps once known as one of the most aggressive in the region.

Following his inauguration, President Bashar al-Assad told reporters that newspapers should strive for a calm, logical and balanced style and respect the intelligence of the audience. In 2000, state-run al-Thawra took the president's cue and published a critical report about Syria's economy.

Later the government instituted Decree 50 allowing private magazine and newspaper publishers belonging to legally established parties to seek publishing licences from the President. However, the decree restricted eligibility to persons who have been Syrian Arab nationals for at least five years and preserved the President's authority to nix any publication running content deemed contrary to the national interest. The decree also limited managerial positions to those with university degrees.

Syria's Media City should make a difference in this regard. The free zone is scheduled to open in August 2006.

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