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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.
Related: Jordan blocks over 200 ‘unlicensed’ websites
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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.
The Jordanian government began blocking over 200 websites on Sunday for failing to obtain licenses under a strict set of new guidelines, Ruth Michaelson reports.
Four amendments to the country’s press and publications law gave the government the power to censor sites that fail to comply, close outlet offices and hold the site owners responsible for posted comments. The changes to the law, which were introduced in 2012, sparked a backlash that saw 1,000 Jordanian sites stage a blackout on 29 Aug 2012. Undeterred, the government implemented the changes.
According to press reports, 281 sites have so far been targeted. The pro-government Jordan Times quoted Fayez Shawabkeh of the Press and Publications Department (PPD) as saying that his department was responsible for compiling the list of “unlicensed” sites, which was forwarded to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC). In turn, the TRC pressured the country’s service providers to begin implementing the blocks.
It became immediately clear on Sunday that the block included many sites that fall outside the category of what Jordan Times described as “local broadcasters”. The website arabianbusiness.com reports that “some of the more prominent pages that have apparently been blocked by the government include Qatari news portal Al Jazeera, Time Out magazine, erotic publication Penthouse and the site of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.”
The amended press and publications law requires websites to obtain licenses similar to the rules that require printers to register, without regard to the differences between the mediums.
A rundown of the law on the website tamimi.com states that: “Jordan’s amendments to the press and publications law mean that owners of electronic publications, irrespective of where their offices are located, must take care when allowing their websites to be viewed in Jordan. While the amendments only contain four changes to the press and publications law, under the new legislative regime electronic publications that contain news, press reports, press releases and comments have an additional obligation to register, obtain a license and actively monitor the content of the publication in order to ensure that they are in compliance with the laws in Jordan.”
Therefore, the amendment is not simply regulating Jordanian sites, but any site available to view in Jordan- essentially requiring the entire Internet to comply with what appears to be a rather opaque and poorly defined category of regulations. In order to stay within the law, any site that wishes to be viewed in Jordan has to obtain a license and police the content of the site, irrespective of where it is in the world. The Jordanian government has “stressed that the law is aimed to organize the sector and provide legal guarantees against slander and unlawful material” according to AmmonNews. Given the flexible and rather expansive language of law, there also appears to be few guarantees or safeguards that the government won’t block a site arbitrarily or simply amend the law to block sites that it wishes to target.
The stated framework of this law also raises questions as to whether sites like Al Jazeera, Penthouse, Time Out or the Muslim Brotherhood would ever be able to obtain licenses to be viewed in Jordan. Last year, the country’s parliament considered a law that would have banned the Muslim Brotherhood from participating in the then upcoming election, on the basis of banning “religious parties” and Al Jazeera has sometimes been regarded as the fuel of anti-government protests across the Middle East. Penthouse would undoubtedly fall foul of public decency laws. It is unclear precisely what threat Time Out poses.
It is also unclear at present whether the Jordanian authorities will continue to ignore to the intense pressure from press freedom and civil society groups such as the Jordanian Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, who described the law as “storm[ing] the freedom of electronic media”. Yet on the same day that the new law went into affect, King Abdullah launched his “Democratic Empowerment Programme”, dubbed Demoqrati, which according to The Jordan Times “is founded on development-boosting values such as the rule of the law, rejection of violence, acceptance of others, dialogue and accountability. It is also meant to stimulate civil society institutions to play their role as a key supporter of citizens and issues of concern to the public.” It appears that the Kingdom is yet to regulate irony.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Jordan has become a haven for many activists, to the growing concern of the Jordanian government.
The country attracts many activists who fear reprisals by Hezbollah should they go to Lebanon, but who equally do not wish to connect with the Syrian National Council in Turkey, as they worry that it is too closely aligned to conservative religious movements.
Yet there is an undeniable sense that the activists in Jordan wish to stay under the radar despite their growing numbers: if their presence is felt too much, they fear that the Jordanian government will change its open-border policy, threatening the safety of not just the activists but the thousands of refugees who have also sought shelter there. For this reason, the names of all those interviewed for this article have been protected.
Activists are keenly aware that they are being watched by the Jordanian secret service. “They ask you to come in to see them regularly, for reasons related to your security” explained S, “so they’ll ask questions about whether you feel you’ve been followed or if you feel in danger, and this is clearly for your own protection. But then because they’ve got you there, they start with questions that help them, like who you’re associating with and why.”
Jordan is continuing to weather a growing anti-government movement which was sparked by the Arab Spring in 2011, and there are fears that allowing it to become a known centre for revolutionaries will both destabilise the country and compromise its tenuous diplomatic relations with Syria.
“It’s not easy to be active in public about Syria in Jordan,” says S. “If you talk to the media about Syria and say where you are, you will be questioned by the secret police and asked not to give away your location. If you want to protest, you need to tell the authorities in advance. There have been occasions when, during demonstrations in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman, protestors tried to enter the building, so the Jordanian secret police held them for a few days.”
Keeping in contact with those still in Syria and sharing this information with as many as possible forms the backbone of any activism for those now in Jordan. Still, “it’s not so easy for those inside Syria to talk to those who’ve escaped,” S continues, “because if they’re wanted by the security forces then their parents phones will be tapped. This is already the case for all international calls to and from Syria. When the security services want someone, they arrest a member of their family, so they obligate them to go and get them so they can arrest them.”
As such, the internet provides the primary lifeline between those who have fled Syria and those still inside. Even though most use routing software or browsers such as UltraSurf or Tor, there are still enormous risks. “Many people inside were arrested because the regime could hack their e-mails and profiles,” explains ‘S’, “which is why you have nicknames on Facebook and fake e-mails. Even on the ground, most activists use nicknames.”
Pro-revolution websites within Syria are automatically shut down, but information flourishes through those outside the country with connections to those still inside publishing websites that compile snippets of information from those inside, such as Syrian Revolution Digest. Facebook is the main social networking tool for sharing information, possibly because the structure of the site provides a degree of protection against hacking.
Even so, obtaining media to share is not without risks, even for citizen journalists. “If they [the Syrian police] find a video of a protest on your mobile phone for example, you’re probably dead,” says S.
New Start, a prominent pro-revolution radio station based in Jordan, hides its location even from the Jordanian authorities. “We talk about the human needs in Syria, focusing on areas like Homs, Damascus and Aleppo where there are many problems, plus broadcast the news,” explained “N”, who set up the station. “To do this, we make contact with Syrians inside and publish it online. We couldn’t do this inside Syria. We don’t have the internet access and it would be way too dangerous.”
New Start, which broadcasts via internet livestream, was recently contacted by the online provider that hosts the channel to inform them that the feed they use to broadcast had “experienced a series of attacks” against its host server.
The provider has claimed to be able to block the attacks and to be taking measures to ensure that this incident does not reoccur, but there are no guarantees for its security. When N and the other radio station workers contacted the provider to find out precisely where the attacks were coming from, they received no response.
The debate raging among the activists both within Syria and beyond is about how violence has become central to resistance on the ground, an element that looks to be the largest force shaping the direction of the country. Few activists seem willing to denounce the use of violence, which was initially employed exclusively to shield peaceful protests from being fired at by pro-Assed forces, but has now has become a pillar of the resistance strategies — some would argue justifiably.
Nonetheless, non-violent protest is continuing, although it carries heavy penalties: all protests expect to be fired on with live ammunition. Another activist, “B”, spoke of how one female protestor became famous almost overnight after standing in front of the parliament building holding a sign saying: “Stop killing, we want to build a home for all Syrians”. The use of the slogan has spread to become something of a meme, although now anyone seen displaying the sign showing it is arrested.
The suppression of any information linked to the uprising is total. “One of my best friends was constantly going out at night to graffiti the walls with pro-revolution graffiti,” said S, “he was arrested a month ago and we have no idea where he is.”
“Because of the way that we were raised and our culture, Syrian people reject the idea of outside intervention. Change has to come from within Syria,” insisted “H”, an activist who has now returned to Homs.
Whatever form this change comes in, it is clear that it will be fuelled through the lines of communication between those within Syria and those who have managed to escape successfully. It could be said that the greatest strength of the Assad regime has been its ability to censor media and communications, especially that which shows the atrocities it is now committing against its own people. As such, free speech and open communication are not just tools to expose this or to drive the uprising forward, they are in themselves revolutionary.
Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah. She tweets at @_Ms_R
Jordanian internet users have reacted angrily to government encroachment on the freedom of the internet. Flying in the face of the reputation of Jordan as a Middle East haven for technology and relative liberalism, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology has stated its support for a blanket ban on online pornographic material, an easy jumping-off point for wider controls.
The Ministry was responding to a petition set up through the social-networking site Facebook to censor x-rated material in order to “bring an end to sexual crimes such as incest, rape and adultery”. Leaving aside the dangers of writing policy based on Facebook petitions, the majority state-owned Jordan Times named the petition, which garnered 29,459 “likes”, as the main driver behind government support.
The petition is at the very least convenient for the government: the article, extolling this movement of “people power” glossed over the use of actual sources, hinting at the possibility that the petition could originate from within the government itself. The same article also quotes Alexa, “an Internet metrics company”, as providing the figure that “between 77 per cent and 80 per cent of Internet users in Jordan access pornographic sites”.
The Ministry of ICT will now begin consulting with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as to how to filter and block the sites, although the obliging “anonymous source” at the Jordan Times told the paper that “at this stage, there are no financial allocations for a project to block these sites.”
Jordanian bloggers have responded furiously to the implication that the government will now either use part of its’ taxpayer-funded research and development budget to pay for this move, or that the cost of censoring will be built into ISP costs. Blogger Roba Abassi cited the eventual aim of having “Internet Service Providers…provide a restricted Internet ‘by default’ and for those who want an unrestricted internet to ask for that and pay extra.”
Jordan was recently ranked at 128 out of 179 countries in Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) annual ranking of freedom of expression. A previous attempt to sanction and “regulate” online content was eventually quashed in 2010 after a widespread outcry: potential penalties ranged from fines to forced labour for posting material online that violated vaguely defined rules of “public decency” or “national security”. It seems that with the first attempt to control the internet directly by state having failed, the Jordanian government is now finding more insidious ways to pressure private companies to do their dirty work for them, citing “public interest” as their motivation.