July 14, 2008 – Updated on January 25, 2016 Syrian leader alongside Sarkozy at Bastille Day parade: “A dark day for press freedom,” says Reporters Without Borders RSF_en News Organisation French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited all the foreign heads of state attending the Union for the Mediterranean launch summit to join him for today’s ceremonies for Bastille Day, the French national holiday. They included Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been condemned by Reporters Without Borders as an enemy of press freedom. He sat beside United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the guest of honour at the Paris parade.Shortly before the start of the parade on the Champs Elysées, a group of about 20 Reporters Without Borders activists demonstrated there to show their disapproval and handed out leaflets to about the state of press freedom in Syria. The demonstrators also tried to wave placards showing photos of journalists imprisoned in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, but were forcibly removed from the area by the police.“The Syrian leader’s participation in the Bastille Day ceremonies is shocking,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Nicolas Sarkozy is going from concession to concession. After welcoming Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with open arms on 10 December – Human Rights Day – and extolling the Tunisian government’s virtues, he is marking 14 July, a day that celebrates independence and freedom, alongside the leader of one of the world’s most repressive governments. How far is he prepared to go to ensure the success of his plan for a Mediterranean union? What other concessions will he make to the Libyan leader so that he agrees to support the plan?“During his presidential campaign, Sarkozy made human rights one of the core issues of his manifesto. If he were elected, he said, there would be tougher negotiations, especially about Russia and China. Today we are a very long way from those promises. This president, like others before him, is conducting a realpolitik based on economic interests to the detriment of defending the values France is supposed to embody.”In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party rigorously stifles the slightest criticism using special laws introduced under the state of emergency that began in 1963. National media are supposed to “defend the interests of the nation.” Four journalists and writers are imprisoned in Syria for condemning government violence. They include Michel Kilo, 67, who has been held at Adra prison, Damascus, since May 2006 after being given a three-year sentence for “weakening national loyalty.” He had called for normal relations between Syria and Lebanon to be restored. Others who signed the “Damascus-Beirut, Beirut-Damascus” appeal were given severe jail sentences, such as lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni. In December 2007, a dozen members of the Damascus Declaration committee, including journalists Akram Al-Bunni, Ali Abdallah and Fayez Sara, were among those detained in a wave of arrests. They have been charged with “damaging the prestige of the state” and “publishing false information liable to weaken national morale” because they called for democratic reforms, and could face many years in prison.The Syrian government’s ruthless censorship also affects material published on the Internet. Five cyber-dissidents are imprisoned in the country, including author and poet Firas Saad who was sentenced to four years in prison in April 2008 for condemning the “defeatism” of the Syrian government in a website article.Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did not in the end make an appearance today on the VIP stand. In 20 years of authoritarian rule, he has brought all opposition forces to heel, starting with the media and the judiciary, and silenced any dissenting voices. The president and his cronies have wooed, threatened and crushed the leading news media into submission. Independent news sources are sadly lacking in Tunisia. The weekly Kalima, started in 1999, has never been granted a licence and its website is blocked in Tunisia. Journalist Slim Boukhdir has been imprisoned for more than seven months in appalling conditions. During a state visit to Tunisia in April 2008, the French president said he refused to “give lessons” and even congratulated his Tunisian counterpart on the progress the country had made regarding freedoms.President Sarkozy also invited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, King Abdallah II of Jordan, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian premier Mahmud Abbas to join him on the VIP stand.Reporters Without Borders has reported many violations of press freedom in those countries. In Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, journalists and cyber-dissidents are in prison for reporting facts that displeased the authorities. The organisation is also campaigning for those responsible for the death of Palestinian journalist Fadel Shanaa to be brought to trial. A cameraman for the British news agency Reuters, he was killed by Israeli shellfire in the Gaza Strip in April 2008.For more information about the state of press freedom in North Africa and the Middle East, see the Reporters Without Borders 2008 Annual Report on the organisation’s website (www.rsf.org). Help by sharing this information Some 20 Reporters Without Borders activists demonstrated on the Champs Elysées in Paris today as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was joining French President Nicolas Sarkozy and some 40 other foreign heads of state on the VIP stand for the start of the military parade for Bastille Day, the French national holiday. Eight of the Reporters Without Borders activists were arrested.