- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria A television series broadcast across Syria in December during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan proved to be more daring this year in tackling taboo issues and defending freedom of speech, a movement that has found momentum since Syrian President Bashar Assad came to power in July 2000.
According to a survey on the Al Ajeeb satellite television station's Web site, the channel attracted the greatest number of Arab viewers during the popular viewing month by broadcasting 15 series produced by the private sector.
Arguably the most adventurous was "Spotlight," a comedy series produced, directed and acted by a group of young artists who showed much courage in criticizing corruption, the role of intelligence services in clamping down on freedoms and, as the show put it, "how the sons of the officials and those close to the government are behaving."
Just a few years ago, such criticism would have been considered "defamation" or a violation of the "red lines."
One "Spotlight" episode featured a detained citizen who kept asking authorities what the charges were that prompted his arrest and interrogation. The investigator finally told him that opposition could be in his genes since his great-grandfather was an opponent and this would force them to analyze his DNA.
Another episode discussed the widespread presence of detectives in Syrian society "to the extent that the wife of one of the detectives recorded and reported her own criticism to the authorities."
Allowing the broadcast of such a TV series was "a kind of a social escape, because of citizens who are facing pressuring conditions, especially at the economic level," said a Syrian viewer who asked not to be identified.
"Spotlight" director Al Layth Hajo confirmed reports that several officials and important personalities were annoyed by his series, and that at least one episode was re-edited.
"I heard that some people were not pleased because of a certain character or accent we used in the series," he said in an interview with Syria's satirical al Dumari newspaper. "We did not do this on purpose, and we tried as much as possible that our program touches all the sectors of the Syrian society."
Ali Ahmed, another viewer, said it was worth watching the show "not only for its courage but also because it's a project handled 100 percent by young people."
After "Spotlight," the second most widely viewed TV series in Syria during Ramadan was "The Sons of Grief," which took up issues such as AIDS and the impact of divorce on children.
In contrast, "Hadith al Maraya" ("Talk of the Mirror") widely popular in past years for its criticism was apparently a total failure this year because, as al Dumari newspaper put it, the show fell "into much repetition."
"Burying the Myths" is a series that could have been considered the Syrian version of Egypt's "Horseman Without a Horse" about the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, the Syrian producers said their series was different because of its broader focus on "the cultural, political and economic implications of this conflict."

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