Buffeted by internal and external forces, the Jordanian government’s recent move against hundreds of websites underscores the fragile nature of free expression in the country. Ramsey George reports
The country has seen an explosion of news sites that cover local politics and have become a thorn in the side of the government. A well-educated population and clever manoeuvres from the government have helped keep the political and social situation calm. At the same time, Jordan’s internet, media and cultural scenes have been growing — upsetting a delicate balance in the country.
Over the past several years, the government has repeatedly tightened efforts to censor and police the internet. Media observers see these actions as being in direct response to the rise of political news sites and expanding social media use among Jordanians.
Three high-profile cases have highlighted the Jordanian government’s attitude toward freedom of expression. Jamal al-Muhtasib was detained in 2012 for political reasons after posting an article about corruption. Mwafaq Mahadin and Sufyan al-Tell have been pursued by state prosecutors for publicly criticising Jordan’s foreign policy. While the cases were initially dismissed, all three face renewed charges and are back in court.
Recently, amendments made to the Kingdom’s notorious press and publications law have demonstrated the state’s intentions. The amendments have forced sites to register, purchase a license from the press and publications department and assign an editor-in-chief who is a member of the Jordan Press Association (JPA). Moreover, the amendments hold new websites responsible for any “inappropriate” comments left on their platforms, and give the government permission to force the deletion of comments deemed “irrelevant” to a particular article. These requirements severely restrict news websites from joining the media landscape in Jordan and impact the ability of existing sites to function. Additionally, the amendments to the press and publications require significant resources from the government to enforce.
News sites would also have to store comments and user information for at least six months. Meanwhile, the government has also declared its intentions to formulate a new telecommunications law that would force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block pornography sites, or any material the government believes to be in contradiction to the country’s moral fabric.
In 2010, the government attempted to block over 50 news sites throughout government buildings, citing a 30-day official study that claimed public sector employees were wasting three hours per day surfing such sites. This policy was coupled with the introduction of a controversial Cyber Crimes draft law that included articles targeting news sites, including the ability to impose fines on media outlets publishing articles deemed to be “defamatory” or allow the authorities to raid offices and confiscate computers.
After pressure from interest groups that included bloggers, cyber activists and journalists, these articles were removed from the law, and the government’s policy of blocking news sites was reversed. Nevertheless, the Jordanian government has continued to find new ways to restrict and regulate new media in the country–especially in the post-Arab Spring era.
The context of these moves must also be considered, and there is perhaps nothing more that stands out as a contributing factor the state’s newfound direction than the advent of the Arab Spring and the lingering presence of domestic discontent. Jordanians, for instance, have taken to Facebook and Twitter to form new groups and hashtags, while using these platforms to mobilize people, create discussion, launch protests, or simply voice discontent with the economic, social and political status quo. By some estimates, there are over 2.4 million Facebook users in Jordan, and this includes a quarter million new users in the past six months alone. With some of the biggest Jordanian pages and groups on Facebook being media related or political in nature, both the usage and user base on Facebook alone has changed dramatically since the Arab Spring began, with Jordanians finding a new political voice, and articulating it online.
Ramsey George is a co-founder of 7iber.com, a citizen media platform based in Amman, Jordan.