Yesterday the Jordanian Media Commission blocked access to 7iber.org, the alternate domain we have been using for the past year after the Jordanian government first blocked 7iber.com along with around two hundred other websites based on the amended Press and Publication Law.
Despite the ban, or perhaps in part because of it, 7iber went through some exciting changes and developments this past year. Our content and research teams have grown. We have produced numerous reports, multimedia packages, and photo stories on diverse issues that do not get much coverage in mainstream media. We expanded our research on internet governance and digital rights. We organized workshops on journalism ethics and standards as part of our media monitoring project "Ghirbal." We took on censorship in its different forms with pieces like this infographic on legal boundaries of freedom of expression; this interactive feature on activists on trial before the State Security Court; this multimedia analysis on book censorship in Jordan; or this video on the proposed amendments to the Telecommunication Law and how it violates users’ rights; and much more.
Recently we started working on data-based stories related to website licensing, in addition to book and film censorship in Jordan. We approached the Jordanian Media Commission (which was formed with the merging of the Press and Publication Department and the Audio Visual Regulatory Commission), and our journalists did not conceal who they are or why they want the data. The commission was very cooperative and provided us with most of the documents we requested. Is this what caused them to block us today? We do not know. Were we asking for it by reminding them that we exist and are up and running? Was it the content we publish that may have ruffled some feathers? Was it the recent change of management at the commission? Who knows. It was no secret that we had been bypassing the ban through 7iber.org, and it was clear that the powers that be decided to let us operate, until today.
Just like last year, no one informed us officially that we were going to be blocked. We only found out through some sources at Internet Service Providers who received the blocking order from the Telecom Regulatory Commission (see documents below).
Last year, on 1 June 2013, the Press and Publication Department made the decision to block over two hundred news websites. The decision to block 7iber came one month later, on 1 July. This was based on article 49 of the amended Press and Publication Law, which states that any website that publishes “news, investigations, articles, and commentary related to the Kingdom’s internal or external affairs” has to get licensed by a decision from the director of the Press and Publication Department (now Media Commission). The law grants the director the authority to block unlicensed websites without a court order (a direct violation of article 15 of the Jordanian constitution).
The above definition of an “online publication” can apply to a wide range of websites; not only local and foreign news sites but also blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, or Twitter Accounts. The government said that the law only applies to “news sites,” but the law states no such thing, and this was clearly just a political decision at the time. Of course 7iber is not and never was a news site, but after discussions with the head of the Press and Publication Department at the time, Fayez Shawabkeh, we found out that the government equates any political content with news. So if you want to talk about politics, you need a special government license.
Most of the blocked websites immediately resorted to licensing in order to get back online, and today the number of licensed websites has reached one hundred sixty, according to figures from the Media Commission. Some websites, 7iber included, challenged the ban in court, but the cases were dismissed, forcing these websites to license. 7iber chose not to and continued to operate via 7iber.org, with the full awareness that the government can decide to block this alternate domain any moment. It took them a whole year to do it.
The Jordanian government says that by blocking websites, it is simply implementing the law. Many people have asked us: why do you not just get licensed?
The main reason is a moral stance against censorship. We are not against registration, and 7iber is registered as a limited liability company with the Jordanian Ministry of Trade and Industry. We uphold transparency in our work. Our sources of funding are clearly stated on our website, and our team members are all identified. We take full responsibility for what we publish and we seek to produce professional content of high standard that respects our audience. What we oppose is the licensing requirement, which requires every publication or website to get permission from the government in order to operate. The requirement to license is one of the oldest tools of government censorship and restriction of freedom of expression. How could it be that in the digital age of self-publishing, social media, and citizen journalism, you have to get government permission to publish online? Does it make sense that in order to get that permission, you have to have an editor in chief who is a member of the official press association for at least four years?
How could it be that in the digital age of self-publishing, social media, and citizen journalism, you have to get government permission to publish online?
Now, even if we did–hypothetically–want to get licensed, we do not fulfil the requirements. While the Press and Publication Law was amended in September 2012, the Jordan Press Association (JPA) Law was not amended until only two months ago. This law, before getting amended, required as a condition of membership in the JPA that the journalist gets “trained” in an “official” media entity. It did not matter if you had a graduate degree in journalism or if you worked with an international news agency or an online media entity. The JPA acknowledged none of that. To make things more absurd, the Press and Publication Law prohibits the practice of journalism by anyone who is not a JPA member, which means that unless you were trained by state media, you could not be a journalist in Jordan. It goes without saying that this law was not enforced as there is a large number of practicing journalists in Jordan who are not JPA members, but like other laws in Jordan, it is there to be used when the authorities feel like it.
Many of the websites that got licensed resorted to finding an editor in chief that meets the JPA membership condition and hiring them on paper, for licensing purposes only. The Press and Publication Department turned a blind eye to numerous violations of the law at the beginning because they wanted to license as many websites as possible to give the law legitimacy.
When you have a restrictive law that violates constitutional principles of freedom of expression and press freedom, fighting it is not only legitimate but also necessary.
We are not criticizing mechanisms websites use to overcome getting blocked. When you have a restrictive law that violates constitutional principles of freedom of expression and press freedom, fighting it is not only legitimate but also necessary. How can we talk about the rule of law in the absence of true democracy? When you have an election law designed to produce a politically weak and unrepresentative parliament (whose members engage in gunfights and are more concerned with where they’re seated than with actual legislation), what can you expect from the laws it passes?
The vague and inapplicable clauses in the press law open the door for government to implement it randomly and arbitrarily. This randomness is intentional and helps creates a chilling effect and self-censorship that is more effective than any government censorship.
7iber.org is blocked inside Jordan, and we have moved to 7iber.net, for now. We are exploring different available options, but whatever solution we get to, nothing will shake our belief in freedom of expression and press freedom and their role in speaking truth to power and pushing the boundaries for a critical public debate.
Below is a copy of the request sent by the Media Commission to the Telecom Regulatory Commission to block a number of websites. It is worth noting that most of the websites listed are not even active; one of them has not been updated since 2010.
[This article was originally published on 7iber.]