DAMASCUS Syrian authorities have banned programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat from cellphones, tightening already severe restrictions on the Internet in the wake of the unrest in Tunisia, users said on Wednesday.
Nimbuzz and eBuddy, two programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat and other messaging programmes through a single interface, no longer work in Syria, thety said.
The Baath Party has ruled Syria since 1963, when it outlawed all opposition and imposed emergency law, which is still in force.
The main Facebook page is also banned, but servers known as proxies allow Syrians to bypass the controls, with the chat function through cellphones gaining popularity, especially among the young, according to users.
"All indicators point downhill after the revolution in Tunisia. The policy of iron censorship has not changed," said Mazen Darwish, head of the Syrian Media and Freedom of Expression Centre, which the authorities closed three years ago.
Syrian media, which is controlled by the government, barely reported the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A Damascus newspaper attributed his fall to his closeness to the West.
But the Syrian authorities, in a policy reversal, increased a key subsidy for government workers after Ben Ali was driven from power by unrest over prices, unemployment and state repression.
U.S. officials said Tunisian authorities may have tried to interfere with Facebook, which was used by opposition activists, during Ben Ali's rule.
In Egypt activists said the government blocked Facebook this week as thousands took to the streets to try to bring down President Hosni Mubarak. The government denied this, saying it respected freedom of expression and sought to protect it.
Darwish said Syria's ruling hierarchy showed no sign of allowing serious media coverage of poverty or corruption, but might continue allowing people to vent some frustration.
He pointed to the website www.syria-news.com, which reported on the eBuddy and Nimbuzz ban and published comment by readers, most of them using pseudonyms.
The majority said the programmes were used to communicate with relatives, boyfriends and girlfriends abroad, suggesting the ban will only enrich the two cellphone companies, which have a duopoly on the Syrian market.
"This is a real shame. We're in the year 2011. They (the authorities) are making a mockery of Syria," Klm666 said.
A person who gave his name as Abed said the best solution was "for them to shut down the Internet completely"
There was no comment from the Syrian authorities. Officials have previously said Facebook is banned to prevent Israel from "penetrating Syrian youth".
President Bashar al-Assad, who helped spread use of the Internet in Syria, has a Facebook page. The only official title Assad held before succeeding his late father 11 years ago was head of the nation's computer society.
One businessman, who declined to be named, said the Internet bans also damaged Syria's competiteveness at a time when the government was trying to reverse decades of economic retreat.
"You cannot have an open economy and a closed Internet," he said. "They're undermining their own economic policy."
(Editing by Tim Pearce)