An Unlikely Success Story For A Kid's Magazine, In Syria

Bringing hope to Syria's children.
Bringing hope to Syria's children.
Jalal Zein Eddine

SARAQEB — Zaytoun and Zaytouna relies on games, stories and illustrations to make life in Syria's war zone a bit more bearable for kids. Launched in July 2013, the four-page magazine started as a modest project with a team of three people using a small printer and circulating it to a limited number of children.

Today, says magazine director Sumar Kanjo, the team includes over 10 writers and 10 illustrators, and Zaytoun and Zaytouna has become a cultural pillar in Saraqeb and other areas under opposition control. In addition to the paper edition, the magazine is launching a website and a Facebook page.

The magazine covers subjects such as entertainment, culture, poetry, illustrated stories and English-language learning. It also includes games, drawings and stories created by children. The only restriction on content is one that Kanjo set out from the start: no politics and no religion.

The magazine targets children ages of six to 16, with an effort to provide a kind of therapy through media content.

"We need education experts and psychologists specializing in working with children," Kanjo says. "We are trying to find them."

The team working on the magazine is spread across Syria, with some staff members based abroad. The work itself has left a positive mark on the team. "The magazine has given me a way to reach Syria's children," says illustrator Jubran Jubran. "I feel happy when I write or illustrate for them. I transcend reality to reach a child-like state."

Food for the mind

Umm Saeed, a resident of Saraqeb, says that the magazine has become popular with her son and the neighborhood kids. "My son learned many English words from the pictures and the educational model they present, as well as the stories I read to him from the magazine," she says.

But Saraqeb resident Abu Jamil criticizes the magazine's exclusively secular tone. "I wish they would include more about the Quran and the prophetic sayings," he says. "I wish it would focus on instilling Islamic values, morals and traditions within our children, especially since Islam is systematically coming under attack."

The magazine initially relied on individual donations but now receives grant funding from Europe. It still faces circulation difficulties because of the country's security situation and the constant aerial bombardment. But despite the obstacles, Kanjo is hoping to turn the magazine into a publishing house and is interested in adding film and song production to their range of work. There are also plans to create mobile apps for children, such as educational games and entertainment.

At a time when most Syrians are struggling to make ends meet and stay safe, developing a children's magazine could seem like an extravagance. But Kanjo insists that exercising children's minds and souls is no less important than providing food.

"Children need everything: milk, food, medicine, playing and learning. We all must do whatever we can for their best interests."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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