The Jordanian government has blocked another 16 sites, bringing about a total of 254 local news websites that have been recently blocked, authorities announced on 2 July. The move follows the decision made on 2 June to block access to some 300 websites from within Jordan for failing to register under last year’s criticised Press and Publications Law.
Photo of the image that appears on many of the blocked websites. (Image Credit: Al-Bawaba)
Many journalists and human rights organisations condemn the new law’s imposition of repressive restrictions on freedom of information, accusing the government of seeking to control the country’s Internet.
Posing a threat
Naseem Tarawnah, Co-founder and Executive Director of Amman-based citizen media platform 7iber, is well aware of the increasingly prominent role that websites play in Jordan with wider Internet access, expanding social media use among Jordanians, and increasing popularity of online news platforms.
Tarawnah thinks news websites pose a major threat for the state because they can break news faster than newspapers, and overcome state censorship. ‘’The government may influence or control news in print media, but it’s much more difficult to do that in the age of the Internet’’, he observes.
While Jordan has been successful in controlling mainstream media, which is mostly owned by the government and government-affiliated business people, it hasn’t been able to control electronic media.
Tightening the grip
Jordan’s new press law, amended by a September 2012 royal decree, gives the government power to regulate websites, forcing them to register and obtain a license, or risk being blocked. News websites are also required to appoint chief editors, who must have been members at Jordan’s Press Association for a minimum of four years. Editors are responsible for ensuring that user comments posted on webpages do not violate Jordanian laws, and are related to the content of the published material.
Licensing news websites is in contravention of Jordan’s constitution, and violates international standards on freedom of information as well as public statements released by the Jordanian government.
The official motivation behind these actions is that the new legislation aims to organise the work of websites, which are often attacked for allegedly creating false news, while denying allegations that this move restricts freedom.
The decision by Jordanian authorities came only two weeks after the International Press Institute (IPI) held its World Congress in Amman, where Jordanian Prime Minister Ensour praised the role of media and affirmed the importance of press freedom.
The IPI issued a statement, which was circulated to the media expressing deep concern over the government’s orders. They also conducted an emergency press freedom mission to Jordan, and sent letters to the Prime Minister and the king.
The IPI’s Communications Director Anthony Mills recognises that the emergence of online media outlets in the region has been accompanied, in some cases, by unethical conduct. Nevertheless, Mills points out, the response should be neither to apply strict regulations to all websites, nor to close down every unlicensed news site. He, instead, suggests that news website owners should comply with a set of journalistic professional standards through self-regulation.
Protestors gather outside Parliament to voice their outrage. (Image Credit: Hussam Da’ana of 7iber)
Daoud Kuttab is Founder and Director General of AmmanNet, the first website to be included in the blocking list. Despite the claims of regulating online journalism to motivate the suspension of several sites, Kuttab sustains the licensing protocol implies that government officials can disapprove news that stray from the official line. ‘’I feel there’s more than trying to regulate the website, there’s an attempt to curtail an opinion that is not to their satisfaction’’, he says.
For Jilian York, Director for the International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) imposing licensing on online media comes from a place of fear. She is convinced the move has a chilling effect, which translates into self-censorship as well as actual censorship. “I think it makes people think twice before trying to start up a news site again’’, York comments.
Although Jordanian authorities initially assured they would purely target news sites, blogging platform 7iber was added to the blocking list, raising concerns about further restrictions of online freedom by the state.
The co-founder of 7iber, notes a rise of political news sites in Jordan, arguing that the government is essentially after any electronic publication that produces political content or news about the country. Tarawnah considers the licensing process to be a way to create a culture of fear and freeze online debate about Jordan’s public affairs. He also points to Jordan’s laws, typically drafted with ambiguous language and difficult to fight, threatening journalists to regulate themselves.
Acting out of fear
According to Mills, Jordan’s move is partly due to the growing weight of online media, but also to lack of knowledge over news sites along with an unwillingness to embrace the inherent rights of online journalists. ‘’More broadly, there’s a reticence to dynamic vociferous media including online media, which is inherently beneficial to the country as opposed to a potential threat’’, he explains.
The IPI’s Communications Director warns that by requiring news outlets to be licensed, the state potentially fuels self-censorship, and opens up the possibility of the licensing authority to exclude those websites that express views that counter the government’s agenda.
This cartoon represents Jordan's decision to block various news websites (Credit Image: 7iber)
Tarawnah strongly believes the state is less concerned about the perceived impact of international media on foreign audiences. Instead, what poses a threat is the local media that can influence Jordanian minds. ‘’When you have an Arabic language outlet, and if it’s political and has a growing domestic audience, that’s a problem’’, he states.
Kuttab, who also runs Community Media Network, argues that the blocking of websites in Jordan is aimed at punishing the wider public, and preventing Jordanians from knowing facts about their own country.
The amended law is largely seen as an attempt to extend censorship over traditional media and transfer it online, so Jordanian bloggers and journalists addressing local audiences are also subjected to the same threatening environment as their mainstream counterparts.
Refusing to back down
Several news sites have refused to register, dismissing Jordan’s announcement to block hundreds of websites.
Local media organisations and web activists are pursuing technical, political and legal ways to put pressure on the government in response to the website blocking orders. Appeals have been made to international organisations, protests have been held, and a number of lawsuits are being prepared demanding that the constitutional court review the press law. Many mirror sites have been created, and brochures have been widely distributed to guide people on how to use proxies.
Kuttab explains that AmmanNet has created mirror sites to bypass the block, and is using social media to make information available to the Jordanian public.
In the coming months, 7iber plans to raise awareness and encourage discussion among Jordanians, since there’s no public debate that is taking place in the mainstream media. In the interim, the media platform continues to fight the press law in full.
Despite the fact that Jordan has been urged by rights organisations to restore access to the websites currently blocked, there’s no indication that Jordanian authorities are ready to reverse the ban for the time being.
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