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Is the Sky Falling? Press and Internet Censorship Rises in Jordan

[Jordanian political cartoonist Nasser al-Ga’fari’s work is frequently featured in the local daily newspaper Al-Ghad. This cartoon satirizes Jordanian King Abdullah II’s famous quote, “The sky is the limit for press freedoms in the kingdom,” spoken more than a decade ago. Al-Ga’fari portrays the government, as represented by the man on a ladder, covering an illusionary sky with grey paint from a bucket labeled “Press Law.”] [Jordanian political cartoonist Nasser al-Ga’fari’s work is frequently featured in the local daily newspaper Al-Ghad. This cartoon satirizes Jordanian King Abdullah II’s famous quote, “The sky is the limit for press freedoms in the kingdom,” spoken more than a decade ago. Al-Ga’fari portrays the government, as represented by the man on a ladder, covering an illusionary sky with grey paint from a bucket labeled “Press Law.”]

Since January 2011, the Jordanian political scene has been significantly affected by the waves of change in the region collectively known as “the Arab Spring.” Emboldened by regional events, some fear that barriers have been broken in Jordan as political and labor activists throughout the country have taken to the streets demanding greater governmental accountability, an end to neoliberal economic policies, and economic corruption, and political representation.

Jordanian labor activism expanded exponentially in 2011. In 2011 alone, Jordan Labor Watch, an initiative of the Phenix Center for Economics and Informatics Studies, documented over 800 labor actions. Significant developments on the labor front actually began as early as 2006, but labor actions and activism have been propelled and emboldened by the new political climate in the region, a climate which has forced the Jordanian regime to cede greater public space and broaden parameters for political dissent. The scale of current labor actions is unprecedented with workers from just about every sector, with the exception of public security forces, engaged in some sort of labor protest—from teachers, to bank employees, to public imams, to workers in the phosphate and potassium industries, to university employees, to journalists, to taxi drivers, to publically employed nurses and doctors.

In addition to labor activism, after several months of almost weekly protests in the capital city of Amman, new political reform movements began emerging across the country. Although many of the protests of these self-professed “popular youth movements” have been small, they have been regular and geographically diverse, occurring in parts of the country frequently characterized as the regime’s traditional base of support. The Muslim Brotherhood, as the oldest and most organized opposition, continues to be a central actor in these developments, forming coalitions with some of these recently emerged movements (or, from another perspective, co-opting other opposition groups).

Some of the key political issues that the majority of reformers have coalesced around are electoral reform and limiting the power of the monarch to both appoint governments and dismiss parliament. In other words, opposition groups have demanded that the king should no longer appoint the government but rather, the elected majority in parliament should form the government. These demands are linked to broader discussions about limiting the power of the monarch and even demands for constitutional monarchy. In addition, political opposition groups have all demanded a halt to the interference of intelligence and security apparatuses in public life, and freedom of association and expression. Again, much of this is undergirded by broad-based anger at the extent of official corruption.

These developments have coincided with a burgeoning of independent online news sites and various forms of internet activism. Examples of the former include Ammannet.net, Ayanews.com, Sawaleif.com, 7iber.com, Khaberni.com, Ammonnews.net, Aramram.com (an Arabic-language web television program), Kharabeesh (a comedic Arabic-language animated cartoon production group that frequently discusses political issues), and Bathbayakha.com (a comedic Arabic-language web television program that often features political satire and critique), among many more. The latter are mainly youth-driven online activities such as those on blogs, videosharing platforms, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as privately-owned websites and forums). Both sets of online sources offer a relatively free platform for critique and debate. Though they existed before 2011, they have noticeably increased in both their numbers and the range of topics treated. This has been a result of recent economic and political developments. 

The internet enables many Jordanians—and particularly Jordanian youth—to vent and to share their experiences and frustrations. However, concern is growing that Jordan’s active cyber community will soon face a fate not unlike the country’s strictly monitored print press industry, mainly as a result of recently passed amendments to the 1998 Press and Publications Law.

Changing Regime Responses to Jordanian Opposition Movements

As citizens challenged political establishments from Tunisia to Yemen in 2011, it appeared as if the Jordanian regime’s first response was to sit back and let events unfold, allowing citizens to let off steam in the hopes that the relatively small protests would eventually dissipate. King Abdullah II has also repeatedly dismissed governments that he himself has appointed (four since January 2011) and delayed the implementation of some price increases that have been at the center of popular grievances. Then, in August 2011, the regime unveiled more than forty proposed constitutional amendments that it said would address the demands of reformists. In general, however, opposition groups have argued that these changes are not sufficient, do little to curtail the monarchy’s power, and fail to respond to the demands of the leading and steadily growing opposition movements. Alongside these measures, security officials have attempted to use their “powers of persuasion” to pressure activists to desist from pro-reform activities. For example, some activists have been offered bribes to desist with activities. Alternatively, others have been faced with threats of job loss – their own jobs or the jobs of their family members.

The regime also has employed more repressive tactics against protestors and opposition figures. One of the most violent incidents occurred in March 2011 when darak forces, as well as “pro-regime” protestors, attacked peaceful demonstrators at the Ministry of Interior Circle (duwwar al-dakhliyye) in Amman. The resulting clashes led to one death and close to a hundred injuries. Following this confrontation, so-called “regime supporters” began appearing at demonstrations and political marches with increasing regularity. In many instances, these “regime supporters” have attacked protestors, as well as local and international journalists covering protests, earning them the label “baltajiyye,” or thugs amongst opposition groups.

The regime security apparatuses have been particularly intolerant of any perceived breach of red lines related to direct criticism of the king and the royal Hashemite family. For example, a young man who burnt a picture of the king was arrested in Madaba. A group of protestors in Amman were arrested for reportedly calling for the removal of the king. However, persistent and blatant criticism of the regime has noticeably grown, not only in political protests but also in the daily discourse of Jordanians.

Throughout these events, journalists, online activists (many using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter), and bloggers have been repeatedly targeted with repression and even direct violence. Between February and July 2011 alone, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported seventy attacks on journalists and news stations. These included some physical attacks on journalists committed by security officials or unidentified individuals, sometimes under the watch of police and security.

In July 2011, at least fifteen Jordanian and international journalists were beaten by security officials while covering a large demonstration in downtown Amman. This occurred after members of the press were asked by public security officials to wear orange reflective vests, purportedly for their protection – a move journalists said made them identifiable and vulnerable targets.

Some bloggers have been individually targeted with Internet hacking and other means of intimidation. In 2011, a masked assailant stabbed a young female blogger after she published a blog post responding to Prince Hassan’s derogatory comments about protestors. Also last year, the Ammonnews website was hacked after it posted a letter that contained thinly veiled critiques of the regime and royal family, written by thirty-six Jordanians from prominent families, referred to in Jordan as the “Group of 36.” In 2012, the editor of the online news site Gerasa was arrested for running a story in which a member of parliament claimed that the king directly interceded to prevent the investigation of a corruption case from going forward in parliament. Attempts to intimidate and censure journalists still occur relatively unabated, as indicated in a recent report by the local Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists.

Over the past several months, the regime appears to be making a more systematic effort to quell protests and criticism, as authorities cast an even wider net to contain insult to the regime. Alongside the arrest of over fifteen political activists in September 2011[1], the more recent move to censor the internet is particularly ominous.  

Extending Press Censorship to Jordan’s Vibrant Cyberworld

In August 2012, the Jordanian government approved controversial draft amendments to the 1998 Press and Publications Law that will have significant repercussions for online blogs, independent news sites, and social media in Jordan.  

While Jordan’s Press and Publications Law has been amended several times since it was first passed more than a decade ago, the most recently passed amendments introduce major restrictions for “electronic publications.” The law now broadly defines an electronic publication as “a website with an electronic address on the worldwide web that offers publication services including news, reports, investigations, articles, and comments” relevant to the kingdom’s internal and external affairs.

The newest series of amendments to the law’s Article 49 requires any electronic publication to register with the Ministry of Commerce and obtain a license from the Ministry of Culture’s Press and Publications Department. Registration and licensing require time and large fees (estimated to be about 1,000 Jordanian dinars, just above $1,400 US dollars), imposing new obstacles for independent bloggers and webpage managers.

Moreover, revisions to Articles 48 and 49 delegate to the Press and Publications Department the authority to block websites and close their offices if they are unlicensed or deemed to publish “defamatory” content. The Press and Publications Department can carry out these punitive acts without obtaining a court order, although affected parties can appeal the decision in the Supreme Court of Justice. 

Many Jordanians are especially baffled by changes to Article 49, which make the owner, editor-in-chief, and director of an electronic publication responsible for monitoring comments that independent users post on their website. Under the amended article, those responsible individuals are mandated to prevent the appearance of user comments that “contain information or facts unrelated to the news item,” include unverified information, or violate any other restrictive clauses in the amended Press and Publications Law.

A History of Press Censorship in Jordan

Jordan’s print media have been strictly monitored and censored by an array of governmental bodies for more than a decade, but this was not always the case. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as part of a broader governmental liberalization trend under former King Hussein, the Jordanian government tolerated the creation of dozens of new newspapers. Many of these privately owned newspapers flourished and attracted a large local readership, mainly because they covered sensitive and taboo topics, such as corruption cases, that government-owned newspapers typically avoided. 

The Jordanian government enacted a new press law in 1993 that, though far from perfect, guaranteed an individual’s right to independently own and publish newspapers. The law also allowed citizens to challenge governmental decisions that they felt infringed on press freedoms. Perhaps most significantly, the 1993 press law, for the first time in Jordanian history, prohibited the government from suspending or shutting down independent newspapers. However, the age that this relatively liberal media law ushered in was short-lived. 

In 1997, controversy erupted when the government imposed a temporary law (i.e., a law passed by the government and signed by the king when the parliament was not in session)[2] introducing new press censorship measures. Enforcement of this temporary law led to the suspension of several leading privately owned newspapers. Many journalists and other citizens organized demonstrations against these actions, and most of these protests were violently dispelled by police. 

The Jordanian Press Association initially dissolved itself in protest of the 1997 temporary law, but reversed its resignation after two weeks when it became clear that the government would quell any opposition to the new press restrictions. More significantly, five independent weekly papers filed a lawsuit to challenge the law. Against many policymakers’ predictions, the High Court of Justice ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, stating that no verifiable state of emergency warranted the government to change the 1993 press law in such a manner.[3] Meanwhile, various government officials were already writing an alternate draft law, incorporating many clauses and principles of the temporary law. The “Press and Publications Law,” which many critics dubbed “The Prohibition and Publications Law,” was fiercely debated but ultimately passed and ratified by Prince Hassan in September 1998.   

The 1998 Press and Publications Law is frequently criticized for including elastic provisions that can be arbitrarily interpreted and applied by the Jordanian government. In brief, the law criminalizes defamation—which it defines as libel and slander against individuals, governmental institutions, symbols, and religions—in print publications. The law also authorizes the Jordanian government to impose exorbitant fines for publishing material that it deems defamatory. With the broadly defined libel provisions that were introduced in 1998, the potential repercussions of running afoul to the Jordanian regime were greatly augmented. Consequently, most editors and journalists in Jordan (particularly in independent media) have adopted principles of self-censorship out of fear of government reprisal. Furthermore, the 1998 law states that journalists must belong to the Jordan Press Association to legally work in their profession. Unsurprisingly, those journalists who are critical of government policies are often excluded from membership and thus put out of work. 

Unfulfilled Hopes for Press Liberalization

In 1999, hopes were high that the new monarch, King Abdullah II, would follow through on his promise to liberalize press laws. Indeed King Abdullah II held a series of meetings with press union officials and journalists in the first months of his reign and spoke favorably of press law reform. In a meeting with representatives of the Jordanian Press Association concerning the introduction of press reforms, King Abdullah II infamously stated, “The sky is the limit for press freedoms in the kingdom.” However, significant reforms have failed to materialize. Last year, the Freedom House rated Jordan’s press as “not free,” and the country fared marginally better as “partly free” on the “Freedom on the Net” index.

Even before the Arab uprisings began to pose serious challenges to long-standing regimes across the region, Jordanian politicians such as former Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai singled out the country’s active cyberspace for new censorship measures. In 2010, the Jordanian government introduced a Cyber Crimes Law and temporarily blocked access to dozens of privately owned websites, stirring considerable controversy.

As a result of intense pressure from both the international community and Jordanian civil society, the Jordanian government dropped some of the law’s most controversial provisions, including one allowing police to search online media outlets’ facilities without a warrant. The government also significantly revised clauses that ambiguously defined what would constitute defamatory speech. The Cyber Crimes Law was modified to state that those who publish and disseminate information about issues that were not already available to the public could be penalized. Although this clarification of what constitutes “defamation” in electronic publications is still far from ideal for ICT professionals and online journalists, this event shows that the convergence of concerted public and international pressure can persuade the Jordanian government to modify and adopt less restrictive press laws. 

Jordan’s Transition from Print to Online Media

Prior to the advent of online journalism, the two main government-owned newspaper dailies (al-Rai and al-Dustur) as well as state television programming dominated the news scene. Partly owned by private investors, the newspapers are semi-official in ownership but are largely considered to be official in their reporting. Interestingly enough, this “official” status was challenged in the spring of 2011 when major growth in labor activism spilled over into the field of journalism. Journalists at both of these semi-official newspapers held sit-ins and partial strikes for the first time in their history in February and March 2011. Initially, newspaper employees’ demands focused on increased salaries. However, their agenda eventually expanded to include an end to the interference of intelligence officials in the day-to-day editorial decisions of the newspapers. Thus, what began as a strike about wages grew to include calls for increased press freedoms.

Although the protestors gained some victories in terms of new ownership, editorial leadership, and increases in pay, freedom for these publications remains restricted. In early October 2012, Ahmed al-Zu’bi—a columnist with al-Rai whose work often contains mild satirical critiques of the Jordanian government—announced he was not going to write his regular column for one day to protest the censoring of recent columns that he has written.

In many respects, however, the real challenge to the official discourse comes from new sources of media that are independent of government controls. These media are almost entirely internet-based. A large and quickly growing proportion of Jordan’s total population—estimated at approximately 6.6 million—seeks alternative information via a multiplicity of online news sources currently available to all Internet users. For example, a survey conducted in 2009 found that fifty percent of Jordanians were reading news online. More than one hundred independent news sites, some of which are registered abroad, have been created in recent years. They offer a plethora of viewpoints. Many of these websites permit unmitigated discussion via comment features that often grow into the type of animated debate that is absent from government-controlled newspapers.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the government’s most recent efforts to reign in protest are aimed at controlling online media. In recent months, after some Jordanian community activists began calling for the censorship of pornography sites on the Internet, the regime floated the idea of censoring the Internet on moral grounds. However, the new amendments to the 1998 Press and Publications Law are clearly designed to have a much broader reach than the restriction of sexual content, with serious repercussions for online media. 


[This graphic has been widely circulated by Internet activists. Referring to the recent Press Law amendments, it says: “It begins with blocking websites under moral pretexts. Then it develops to blocking websites under security pretexts. Then it comes to the function of blocking websites under political pretexts. Then it comes to function [of censoring] you.” The phrase in the box is the last line from a fable about a lion and four bulls (or three bulls depending on which version). When the bulls fail to stand together in the face of the lion, and betray each other, each is eaten in turn. When only one bull is left, the lion says “I will eat you.” The bull replies, “I was eaten the day you ate the white bull (i.e., the first to be eaten after his fellow bulls sacrificed him hoping to be spared). Image from 7oryanet.com]

Protest Against Recent Press Law Amendments

In August 2012, the regime announced its intensions to amend the Press and Publications Law under the pretense of censoring immoral websites. Once the substance of these amendments became known, web managers and online activists began mobilizing awareness campaigns. 

On August 29, a group calling itself 7oryanet (Freedom Net) organized an internet blackout campaign in which more than five-hundred Jordanian online news and social media websites participated. These websites went black, displaying only the following: “You may be deprived of the content of this site under the amendments of the Jordanian Press and Publications Law and the governmental Internet censorship.”

[Screen image for websites participating in internet blackout campaign.]

In response to governmental claims that the Jordanian people need censorship to ensure that only “moral” content is available to the public, another group created a Facebook group called “I Know How to Protect Myself -- Censoring the Internet is Not the Government’s Job (Business).” Numerous journalists and online media figures have also staged protests in front of Parliament. Extensive critique and commentary was circulated online in an attempt to rally domestic and international opposition to the amendments and prevent their passage.

Despite this opposition, the amendments were passed by the Parliament on 11 September 2012. Forty of the sixty-nine MPs present voted in favor. The king officially approved the amendments on 17 September, but protests continue. 

The Jordanian Press Association (JPA) has organized a “protest tent” in which journalists stage sit-ins on a daily basis. On 9 October, representatives of the JPA discussed the possibility of taking their case to the new constitutional court. However, the provisions for this new court will make this difficult, given that only government bodies have access to that court. 7oryanet also has posted links to a manual on how to avoid state censorship. It remains to be seen whether groups like 7oryanet and the JPA can have any impact on what now appears to be a done deal. In a move to organize themselves to address such laws, journalists working for on-line news sites announced in mid-October 2012 their intention to form an independent union. 

Issues of Enforcement and Economy

Although the situation is quite grim in terms of Internet freedoms in Jordan at the moment, the regime may face obstacles in actually enforcing the amendments. There is speculation about the degree to which the measures will be enforced, and some observers speculate that the amendments were passed primarily to pressure website maintainers into self-censorship. 

In over nearly a decade, Jordan has built a reputation as one of the region’s ICT capitals, and this may curtail the government’s ability to rein in Internet speech. The Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union estimates that Jordan hosts nearly seventy-five percent of all Arabic-only Internet content in the world, leading the ICT industry to dub Amman “Silicon Wadi” (meaning “Silicon Valley” in Arabic).

Unofficial unemployment figures are above thirty percent and Jordan’s steadily growing ICT sector crucially employees more than 16,000 individuals, generating 12.1% of Jordan’s GDP. The tightening restrictions on web-based media are likely to threaten Jordan’s ICT competitiveness in the region and generate even higher unemployment. So much for becoming an ICT hub.

ICT investors will think twice before putting their money in a market where web managers will likely have to walk a fine line to avoid incurring major punitive measures that would endanger their organization’s or company’s online operations. Successful start-ups and ICT companies that are currently based in Amman may move their offices to other Arab cities where online press laws are less restrictive, such as Dubai. 

Beyond the potential economic repercussions, the new press law is clearly designed to reign in dissent. Whether it can achieve this goal remains to be seen.


[Left Image: "No to censoriing websites." Right Image: 7oryanet logo. Images from 7oryanet.com]
 



[1] These activist have been charged with “terrorism-related” offences ensuring that they will be tried in security courts. To date, they have not been released. See http://www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/jordan; http://www.carnegieendowment.org/2012/09/27/disquiet-on-jordanian-front/dx00

[2] Temporary laws are technically only permitted for reasons of national emergency and they are meant to be voted upon once parliament is convened. In reality, the government has passed hundreds of temporary laws, and these have been a source of much criticism by regime opponents.

[3] Note that this was a rare instance of judicial independence in Jordanian history.

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