Authoritarianism versus liberty of speech? The theory and practices of press censorship in Bilad al-Sham (1875–1914)

By Till Grallert
Submitted to Session P4853 (Regulating Print in the Late Ottoman Empire: A New Look into the Question of Censorship, 2017 Annual Meeting
Fertile Crescent; Lebanon; Ottoman Empire; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries; Media; Middle East/Near East Studies; Ottoman Studies; Publishing; State Formation;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The last decades of Ottoman rule are often considered as two distinct periods divided by the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908 and marked by diametrically opposed approaches to the freedom of speech. Indeed, the number of newspapers published in Greater Syria during the Hamidian era remained small and highly stable, while the number of titles exploded after the restoration of the constitution. To explain these differences, many scholars recount a narrative of Hamidian authoritarianism versus Young Turk liberalism—without thorough examination of Ottoman legislation or the practices of censorship.

This paper therefore approaches this topic through close scrutiny of Ottoman legislation and the circulation of legal texts in Bil?d al-Sh?m. The paper then analyses the practices of censorship on the basis of eight Beiruti and Damascene newspapers between 1875 and 1914. It will establish a) to which extent the distribution of warnings and suspensions corresponds to legal changes; b) to which extent suspensions were actually implemented; c) the reasons cited for official interventions; and d) permissible content through the analysis of what was and what was not reported and in which terms.

The paper argues that the final phase of Donald Cioeta’s model press-regime, namely the “enactment of press censorship laws”, came into full force only after 1908. The Young Turks abolished the regulatory, and sometimes repressive, press and printing laws and the restored constitution granted freedom of the press. Yet, the paper will show, no publisher of the numerous new periodicals in Damascus and Beirut failed to obtain the now unnecessary permit for publication. It further demonstrates how the new regime began a new crackdown on an increasingly critical press and how within a single year new regulations were promulgated that introduced a much stricter censorship regime than ever before. Observing that the majority of papers after 1908 was extremely short-lived due to an increasingly effective implementation of censorship laws on the local level, the paper ultimately argues that one encounters an ever-accelerating expansion of the state and its institutions into society from the 1880s onwards with a short interruption of one year, if at all, between July 1908 and July 1909 instead of two periods divided by the Young Turk revolution.