Online news freedoms shaken in Jordan

News websites in Jordan have been shaken up ever since the current government decided to enforce a controversial law that forces websites that deal with Jordanian news and commentary to obtain a license, like the newspapers.

Unlike the audiovisual law, by equating news websites to newspapers, the legislature has created an unusual and hard-to-manage system that forces the Press and Publications Department to interfere daily in the workings on the Internet, which, the world insists, should be free and unfettered.

In implementing the law, the department has chosen not to include many sites that “deal with news and commentary about Jordan” sighting obscure reasoning. Internet giants such as Google, Yahoo and social media sites and individual blogs have been allowed to continue operations based on the subjective whims of the department.

A further problem is the condition that every news website has to appoint an editor in chief who has been a member of the Jordan Press Association for at least four years. The problem with this is that the JPA has been a closed shop, allowing as its members only journalists working for the written press.

Widespread condemnation

A draft law that the government intends to introduce will partially break up this monopoly, but it is unclear if electronic journalists who will be allowed into the syndicate will be credited for their years in service.

The law and its implementation, especially the blocking of websites, has received widespread condemnation by international organizations dedicated to the defense of the freedom of expression.

By equating news websites to newspapers, the legislature has created an unusual and hard-to-manage system that forces the Press and Publications Department to interfere daily in the workings on the Internet, which, the world insists, should be free and unfettered.

Daoud Kuttab

Organizations such as the International Press Institute, Human Rights Watch, Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Journalists without Borders, the Washington DC Press Club and others issued statements calling for the immediate rescinding of the blocked websites. A delegation headed by IPI visited Jordan and met with the prime minister, parliamentarians, website publishers and civil society activists, but failed to produce the needed change.

In Geneva two weeks ago, Jordan was slammed by many countries, including its strongest allies, the U.S., the UK and Canada for the restrictions on websites in implementation of this law. The criticism, which came as part of the U.N.’s periodical review of Jordan’s human rights record, forced the government to state that it plans to revisit the Press and Publications Law, although it refused to make any specific commitment to rescind the controversial provision governing news website licensing.

Jordanian news websites protested the law holding dozens of demonstrations, submitting petitions and seeking help from the legislature, but to no avail.

An attempt to reverse the blockings legally also failed. The legal process climaxed with a petition to the High Court, which questioned the constitutionality of the law, especially in terms of its violation of Article 15, which states that any censorship or restriction to media must be done by a court order and not as part of the work of the executive branch.

Again this attempt failed. The five-judge court struck down a well-prepared petition by stating that blocking sites that are not registered is the law of the land, which gives this right to the executive branch.

Blackout

My organization, which began work in November 2000 under the sponsorship of the mayor of Amman and the director of UNESCO as the Arab world’s first Internet radio (AmmanNet), is one of nearly 300 websites arbitrarily blocked since June 1. The blocking of our site happened without prior notice.

Jordan’s blocking of websites has been a specific punishment of Jordanians who are the only ones affected by the blocking.

Since the blocking of the AmmanNet website, technicians created alternative mirror websites that have also been blocked by orders of the Department of Press and Publications. This cat-and-mouse game stirred much interest in social media.

Our media outlet’s Twitter feed, which published the articles on the newly created mirrors, gained popularity, bringing its followers to over 20,000.

The Facebook page has received more than 37,000 subscribers.

Not affected

The rest of the world as well as permitted social media sites have not been affected. One website publisher commented that the process has made Mark Zuckerberg richer because the Facebook site that he established is getting more traffic now because Jordanians have to go to it in order to read what they are unable to read on Jordanian websites.

The flow of information has therefore not stopped, despite this controversial law, while the country has faced criticism for its anti-media activities.

It is still unclear whether the controversial Press and Publications Law will in fact be discussed in the coming months with civil society and media activists as promised to the UPR session held in Geneva recently.

This week, as protests, international action and legal efforts failed to reverse the blocking order, several website publishers agreed to apply for a license. The search for an acceptable editor was not easy as members of the JPA started to demand exorbitant salaries in order to accept having their name registered as the official editor in chief, proving again one of the problems of the controversial law.

Now Jordanians will once again be able to learn what is happening in their country accessing their own websites without proxies and without the use of social media and mirror sites.

As the statement issued by the publishers of websites whose case was rejected in the High Court said, applying for a license doesn’t stop our efforts to protest the law, which does not contribute to press freedom nor makes a serious effort at regulating this new electronic frontier.

This article was first published in The Jordan Times on Nov. 6, 2013.

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Daoud Kuttab, an award winning Palestinian journalist who resides in Jerusalem and Amman. Mr. Kuttab is the director general of Community Media Network a media NGO that runs a radio station in Amman (al balad radio 92.4fm) a newsweb site ammannet.net and a TV production operation in Palestine Penmedia (penmedia.ps) which is producing the Palestinian version of Sesame street. You can read his blogs on DaoudKuttab.com and find him on Twitter @DaoudKuttab.

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