On 2 June 2013, a Jordanian news website employee contacted Ahmed Theban, a columnist for Jordan’s al-Rai newspaper. The purpose of the call was to ask Theban to recommend a colleague to serve as the news website’s new editor-in-chief. The offer might have been tantalizing if not for its conditions. The new chief editor would be offered a salary lower than the minimum wage and would have no input in the news website’s editorial decisions. The applicants’ qualifications and experience were irrelevant for the caller. The website did not actually intend to replace its existing editor-in-chief with the new hire. Rather, as the caller told Theban, the website simply wanted to “rent a name.”
In August 2012, the Jordanian parliament passed an amendment to the 1998 Press and Publications Law, requiring all websites publishing news material concerning “external or internal affairs of the Kingdom” to register with the government and to appoint editors-in-chief that are members of the country’s journalist syndicate—the Jordanian Press Association (JPA). The Jordanian Press and Publications Department (PPD) implemented this law less than a year later. It was on this date that Theban received the above-mentioned call, as the PPD had just declared the caller’s website and 291 others like it noncompliant with the law. The PPD thus promptly ordered their blockage from the country’s Internet service providers (ISPs).
The caller from said news website knew that the PPD would lift the block on his website only if he complied with the law. But complying was no easy task. Since the website’s existing editor-in-chief was not a member of the JPA, he could not register the website with the government. Yet the existing editor-in-chief also could not join the JPA because, at that point, the syndicate’s bylaws effectively prohibited journalists working for online media outlets from membership. Ensnared by the press law on the one hand and the JPA’s bylaws on the other, the caller sought to forge an alliance, however superficial, between his news website and a JPA member like Theban.
The call apparently bothered Theban enough to pen an op-ed in al-Rai a week after declining to help the caller. Entitled, “Wanted: Editor in Chief for Rent,” the article laments the alleged unprofessionalism exhibited by Jordan’s news websites which, according to Theban, have “grown like fungus” in recent years. He writes:
The important issue is the outlook of these publishers and their pattern of thinking in terms of the importance of a chief editor. Some of them often do not have any relation to the journalism profession, and want to practice “their hobbies” in administering their sites and publishing whatever they want, whether stories or news. Moreover, perhaps they use their sites to blackmail people, far from professional standards, and the editor-in-chief to them is just a puppet!
The article concludes with an endorsement of the JPA, which, according to Theban, “does not forget the importance of defending media freedom and the necessity of maintaining professional dignity from intruders.”
Theban’s op-ed is indicative of the heated debate that has taken place in Jordan since the press law was amended in 2012. Jordan’s first major news website was founded in 2006, and the online news industry has grown to include as many as 400 news websites since that time. The government and its supporters claim that the amended press law is necessary to professionalize the burgeoning online news industry, but the law’s opponents consider it a politically motivated attempt to extend the country’s draconian press laws to cyberspace. In August 2012, a number of news websites participated in a SOPA-style blackout campaign in response to the proposed amendment. They temporarily removed their websites from the Internet and displayed the message: “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.” One month later, several media professionals built a protest tent and vowed not to comply with the law. Their protest ended in October 2012 when the newly appointed Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour visited the tent to hear their concerns. Ensour reportedly promised to look favorably on efforts to redact or change the law. Some opponents of the press law believed that Ensour’s promise was credible because he voted against the amendment as a member of parliament.
However, in June 2013, the Jordanian government unexpectedly implemented the law, rendering hundreds of news websites inaccessible overnight. Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Press Institute called for the blocking order to be rescinded immediately, albeit to no avail. Later that year, Jordan received eighteen recommendations for improving media freedoms in its second United Nations Universal Periodic Review, compared to only one in 2009. These international reactions reflect a growing consensus between some UN member states and international NGOs that the legal environment for media has worsened in the kingdom. Since 2013, however, attempts to reverse this trend have met with repeated failure. Roughly 115 websites registered with the government in the month after website blocking commenced, and the list of registered websites has grown over the last two years to include some of the websites that once opposed the law most forcefully. In fact, signs of further institutionalizing the amended press law can be found in an October 2013 ruling by the Jordanian High Court of Justice rejecting a lawsuit filed by five blocked news websites against the government. In the lawsuit, the websites claimed that Article 49 of the amended press law, which empowers the government to block websites without a court order, violates the Jordanian constitution’s free press guarantees. The ruling thus removed what little pretense of judicial oversight previously existed in the process censoring news websites. Furthermore, as Reem al Masri has argued, the country’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have played a key role in the technical aspect of implementing the law.
Yet in addition to the legal and technical matter of blocking, there was a political process whereby the regime sought to mobilize public support (or at the very least apathy) toward website blocking by stigmatizing the websites it sought to regulate. This stigmatization campaign took two complimentary forms. First, in an attempt to bolster the case for intervention in the online news industry, proponents of the press law have characterized unprofessionalism as a problem endemic to the news websites. Second, the law’s proponents have depicted the Jordanian government and traditional media as the actors that are most capable of setting and enforcing effective norms of journalistic professionalism online. Together, these efforts create a coherent but deeply flawed narrative in which the Jordanian online news industry is little more than a lawless frontier in need of organization, while the regime is a disinterested advocate for the rule of law. This narrative is in urgent need of reconsideration in light of the Jordanian regime’s history of interaction with the independent press in the country and the overbroad implementation of the amended press law to date.
The regime’s strategy of stigmatization has parallels in the region and across the globe. In the aftermath of Turkey’s March 2014 Twitter block, Zeynep Tufekci wrote that then-Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan’s strategy was to “demonize social media,” characterizing it as a “disruption of family, as a threat to unity, as an outside blade tearing at the fabric of society.” Similarly, as Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce reported in 2012, the Azerbaijani government has successfully reined in popular use of social media by linking them to “deviance, criminality, and treason.” These stigmatization campaigns are major non-technical innovations in governments’ attempts to regulate their citizens’ activities on the Internet and countering them should be viewed as central to advocacy on behalf of Internet freedom in autocratic environments.
Since the Jordanian government and the press law’s supporters have spoken publicly about the law, we have access to a number of sources that can yield insights into website blocking in Jordan. These include debates between government officials and their opponents, op-ed articles for and against the press law published in Jordanian newspapers, and several interviews I conducted in Amman during the 2013 summer. I spoke to journalists, employees of domestic and international NGOs, and Director of the PPD Fayez Shawabkeh (the Jordanian public official responsible for implementing the press law). In most cases, the names of interviewees have been anonymized here owing to the sensitive nature of the subject matter.
Independent Newsweeklies of the 1990s: Precursors of News Websites
The current debate over professionalism is in some ways the restaging of a previous conflict. In the early 1990s, King Hussein embarked on a top-down economic and political restructuring project that included limited liberalization of laws governing political parties and the press. Introduced by the government and passed by both houses of parliament, the 1993 Press and Publications Law decreased the maximum percentage of ownership shares that the government could hold in print media organizations and subjected state closures of press institutions to judicial oversight. The liberalization caused an explosion of independent newspapers, which, in contrast to government-affiliated news dailies, were published on a weekly basis, in part because they experienced difficulty attracting the advertising and circulation revenues to publish more frequently. By September 1997, there were twenty-one such newsweeklies,[i] among them Islamist and secular nationalist opposition papers and satirical tabloids. Some of these newsweeklies amassed sizable readerships and covered topic areas that were conspicuously absent from government-affiliated news dailies. These include the peace treaty with Israel and corruption investigations. Yet other newsweeklies became notorious for dissemination of rumors, character assassination, and libel.[ii] While the 1993 press law afforded the independent press relatively more freedom than prior laws, it did not grant newsweeklies carte blanche to publish whatever they wanted. Of the sixty-two prosecutions under the law from 1993 to 1997, the government undertook the overwhelming majority against the newsweeklies.[iii]
These prosecutions point to the suspicion with which the Jordanian regime and some private citizens quickly came to view the newsweeklies. They are also part of a familiar pattern in the regime’s relations with the independent press in which brief periods of relative media freedom are followed by the imposition of stigma and the eventual reassertion of state power into the media sphere. When bread riots broke out in southern Jordan in August 1996, the government arrested five journalists from one of the newsweeklies and charged them with “inciting sedition” for reporting on the events.[iv] The government had also accused the independent press of “damaging its relations with some Arab states,” “invading the private lives of citizens,” and “damaging citizens’ reputation and honor.” Above all, the government held that the newsweeklies were “threatening the standard of the Jordanian press.”[v] The newsweeklies’ coverage of sex and crime also alienated Jordan’s conservative social forces. One Islamist MP accused a newsweekly of “carrying indecent, obscene and unacceptable articles that tarnish our cultural values and traditions.”[vi]
In 1997, with the peace process stalling and parliamentary elections looming, the regime decided to roll back its liberalization agenda. The new political realities, combined with the climate of skepticism toward the newsweeklies, precipitated their two-part decline. First, the JPA initiated legal proceedings against three of the publications under the 1993 press law. It alleged that the newsweeklies in question “infringed upon the general ethics and moral standards” of Jordanians. This allegation drew criticism from some journalists in the country, who argued that the JPA was acting in the interests of the regime and betraying its charge to advocate for journalists.[vii] Second, in May 1997, the government’s council of ministers took advantage of a parliamentary recess to introduce a provisional press law that imposed exorbitant capital requirements on the newsweeklies. Although the Jordanian High Court of Justice eventually ruled the 1997 press law unconstitutional, the law’s capital requirements had already put many newsweeklies out of business by the time the court’s decision was handed down.[viii]
The decline in the number of independent newsweeklies marked the beginning of important changes in Jordan’s media sphere. The current Press and Publications law, which was first passed in 1998, increased restrictions on both the independent and traditional Jordanian press. Many of these restrictions remain in place today. For example, Articles 5 and 37 impose content-based restrictions on any speech that is deemed a threat to “the national unity,” “Arab-Islamic values,” or even “confidence in the national currency.” Violators of these inherently subjective limits on speech are liable to pay hefty fines. Whereas the 1993 press law had attempted to curb the government’s financial control of the country’s major newspapers, the 1998 press law retained the 1997 law’s lack of such provisions. (The government maintains sizeable stakes in the Jordan Times, al Rai, and al Dustour news dailies to date). Other articles of the 1998 law established experience requirements (measured in years of service) for newspaper editors-in-chief and required all print journalists to be members of the JPA in order to be able to practice their profession. This requirement has been particularly controversial among journalists in Jordan, many of whom view the JPA as an extended arm of the government.
These changes in the legal environment occurred alongside persistent extralegal interference in press activities. The Jordanian intelligence agencies have long targeted journalists with so-called “soft containment measures,” including “financial support, scholarships for relatives, and special invitations.” A journalist who worked in an editorial capacity for a leading Jordanian newspaper during the 1990s claimed that phone calls from the security services to newspaper editors became routine. “They would call me up and say ‘Please come and visit us, lets drink coffee,’” he said, “It reached a stage where they would dictate a certain headline, and ironically the three newspapers would have the same headline.”[ix] According to multiple sources, the Jordanian intelligence supplemented soft containment with coercive tactics, including meddling in the JPA’s elections to ensure the victory of its functionaries and dismissing journalists for their editorial decisions.[x]
Unprofessionalism Among Jordanian News Websites
Since the 1990s, the government and security apparatus’ continual interference in the independent media resulted in mounting levels of self-censorship among local journalists. However, the emergence of the Internet in the same period presented Jordanians with a means of sidestepping the traditional media’s gatekeepers. Some journalists in the traditional media started websites to supplement their pieces in traditional newspapers. One example is Ammon News, whose co-founder, Sameer Al Hayari, serves as editor-in-chief for both the website and the al-Rai news daily. Former independent newspaper owners also picked up where they had left off a decade earlier by founding websites. Shihan, which became the most widely circulated newsweekly in Jordan during the 1990s,[xi] moved its operations online. Finally, there were new entrants to the Jordanian news industry who, for lack of interest or opportunity, had never before participated in the country’s existing press (whether traditional or independent).[xii] By 2010, the regime’s attempt to control the country’s print media had ironically contributed to the development of an online news industry that operated largely outside of its sphere of influence.
The emergence of an online news industry in Jordan has been a positive development in many ways. Like the newsweeklies that came before them, the news websites enjoyed a greater degree of editorial freedom than the traditional press. Some of the websites featured investigative reporting, citizen journalism, and other stories that would have been unlikely to appear in the print media. Their comment sections quickly became sites for impassioned debates between Internet users in Jordan and elsewhere. The news websites were also similar to the newsweeklies in that they earned sizable readerships; by 2009, an estimated fifty percent of Jordanians were reported to be reading news online. A variety of new media that appeared alongside the news websites provided unique commentaries that supplemented their content. Examples include Aramram, an online television program, Kharabeesh, a satirical media and entertainment network, and 7iber, a media collective and online platform devoted to empowering Jordanian citizens to take part in debates about issues of national importance over social media.
At the same time, the development has also had negative aspects, most notably the appearance of journalistic practices that the government has considered unprofessional and taken as a justification for its intervention online. Evaluating such instances in light of the press law requires that one ask not only whether the journalistic practice is in fact unprofessional, but also whether the Jordanian government and traditional media are better positioned than online journalists to respond to such instances. For example, in March 2013, five Al al-Bayt University students accused of devil worship were taken into custody by the Jordanian security services after they suffered a beating at the hands of an angry mob. News websites Ammon News and Jafra News drew negative attention from journalists in the traditional media and international human rights NGOs with their reporting of the events. Ammon News published an interview in which Salafi Sheikh Mohammad Shalabi declared the teens infidels and called for their execution. When threatening comments appeared across social media in the days thereafter, some claimed that the news website had placed the students in danger. Further, although university administrators attempted to keep the identities of the accused students hidden, Jafra News named the teens and published photos of them. Even though the students were later acquitted of all charges, their photos are available on Jafra News to this day.
This case illustrates the complexities of confronting journalistic professionalism online. It is clear that some of the news websites’ editorial decisions transgressed a commonsensical understanding of journalistic professionalism. Yet the claim that the Jordanian government and traditional press would have been better positioned to assert norms of professionalism is untenable. After all, the Jordanian security services detained the students for weeks without charge, members of parliament assumed the guilt of the students and called their actions an “affront to Jordan’s societal values”, and traditional media contributed to the blitz surrounding the case. Further, the unprofessionalism exhibited by these news websites was not representative of the online media as a whole. After the president of Al al-Bayt University convened a special committee to investigate the allegations against the students, news website Khaberni published an article reporting the committee’s findings that the allegations against the students – and hence their detention–was based on little more than some pictures of them wearing black clothing and “listening to a raucous genre of music.”
Other instances of alleged unprofessionalism reveal the government’s heavy presumption against the news websites in dealing with the sorts of ethical quandaries that have accompanied new media in many countries. While news websites’ comment boxes have allowed readers to engage in expansive political discussion, some readers have used the space to issue threats or incite others to violence. For example, in the summer of 2012, a number of news websites reported that a building project in the South Mazar village of Karak was said to be a Shi‘i shrine. Users posted a number of menacing comments on the news websites, including a call for the building site to be blown up and the contractor to be murdered. The government and JPA have argued that news websites should be responsible for the comments that their readers post on news articles. Accordingly, the amended press law includes a provision that requires news websites to assume liability for user-generated content and to archive comments for six months. News websites have also been accused of publishing defamatory news articles about private citizens or public officials and subsequently demanding payment from the defamed individuals to delete the material.[xiii] In 2012, for example, a Member of Parliament widely known for his theatrics stated, without corroboration, that a news website had accused the former Prime Minister of “desiring men.”
By 2012, the news websites had drawn the sort of public scorn that preceded the newsweeklies’ downfall fifteen years earlier. The JPA demanded that the news websites “pledge adherence to national, ethical criteria,” condemned their “unethical comments” that undermine national unity, and called on the government not to cooperate with non-members of the syndicate. It also took disciplinary measures against the news websites at the behest of private citizens. Examples include a former member of parliament who petitioned the JPA to suspend one of its members after the journalist published an “offensive” article about him on a news website. Sitting Members of Parliament also accused the news websites of shoddy reporting, harming parliamentarians’ reputations, and instigating social violence. The outcry against the news websites was perhaps best expressed by Batir Wardam, a columnist for Jordan’s al-Dustur news daily, in an article entitled “Witch-Hunt Media.” Referencing the devil worshipping case, he argued that news websites’ reporting more closely resembled “the European witch-hunts of the Dark Ages than a highly professional news media.”
It is unclear where the above instances of purported unprofessionalism originated. Some Jordanian journalists believe that the unprofessional practices are yet another byproduct of the regime’s interference in the country’s online news media. One prominent journalist stated, “[The security] had the right conviction that you cannot beat the system so they decided to join it. They started funding all sorts of websites . . . Within months the sites started to become very, very famous because the security was leaking all sorts of information to them. They were helping them get money, advertising and so on.”[xiv] By contrast, the government has asserted that the very lack of clarity surrounding the source of these unprofessional practices justifies its intervention in the online media. One journalist who otherwise opposes the press law agreed that it can be difficult to hold news websites accountable for what they publish, stating, “When the court tries to contact the website owners, they will say they have nothing to do with the website or the content in question.”[xv]
Whatever the cause of unprofessionalism in the online media, some evidence suggests that Jordan’s existing defamation laws would have been sufficient to confront the problem if that was, in fact, the goal.[xvi] Mohammed Qteishat, a prominent media lawyer in the kingdom, was quoted in an article from the Jordanian Media Monitor saying that his legal office itself is tasked with settling 120 media cases pursuant to these laws. The sheer number of these cases attests both to the already broad reach of the kingdom’s defamation laws and to the possibility of allowing courts rather than the government and JPA to establish boundaries for journalists. Other media professionals, such as 7iber’s co-founder Lina Ejeilat, noted that if compiling a registry of website owners was the press law’s goal then there would have been no need for it: the Ministry of Trade and Finance already has such a list for tax purposes.[xvii] Indeed, the Director of the Press and Publications Department Fayez Shawabkeh attested in an interview that his Department’s initial list of websites to regulate came for the most part from that Ministry.[xviii]
Jordan’s Stigmatization Campaign Against News Websites
In 2012, the regime seized on the commotion surrounding online news websites in the Kingdom. In his letter of designation to Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, King Abdullah II called for a national press strategy “designed to promote professionalism among media outlets.” The amended Press and Publications law, which was drafted and passed by the Jordanian Parliament in August and September of that year, was the government’s response to this call. The implementation of the amended press law contrasts the imposition of filtering regimes in countries like China and Saudi Arabia. In those cases, governments have been hesitant to publicly discuss the rationale for their censorship and the criteria that are applied to determine the permissibility of certain web content. In Jordan, the government and other supporters of the press law initiated a political process to convince the public of the merits of website blocking. This included explicit statements about the justifications for the amended press law and the evolving conditions for compliance with it.
The press law’s supporters have tried to garner public support for website blocking primarily by applying the stigma of unprofessionalism to the online news industry as a whole. Samih al Maaytah, Minister of Communications and Media, called online journalists “blackmailers” and argued that the press law is “part of our responsibility towards the professional, institutional media and a protection from some of the transgressions that many complain about.” In July of 2013, “The New Arab Debates” organized a public debate about the press law in which Shawabkeh insisted that the online media had a decade to regulate itself but did not do so. He further referred to online journalists as “intruders” and encouraged them to “clean up their acts”. Member of Parliament Mahmoud Kharabsheh participated alongside Shawabkeh in the debate and declared, “the press law strengthens professionalism and objectivity, especially given that the online space is wide open and there are a lot of crimes that are committed there, such as money laundering and smuggling.” This sort of stigmatization has been extremely prevalent since the press law was implemented. The many instances are based on a common template in which the news websites are characterized as a threat to the JPA and traditional press, which are treated as synonymous with professional journalism.
The government’s view has earned adherents among journalists in the traditional media. In an op-ed for Jordanian newspaper al Ghad, columnist Manar Rachwani placed the blame for infringements on press freedoms on online journalists. He states, “guaranteeing freedom of the press in the face of all the external constraints comes not by freeing the media from every responsibility and instance of blame […] it is itself responsible in the first and last place for the decline of its own freedom, as it is a result of its declining professionalism.” Wardam, another columnist in the traditional media, criticized some of the law’s provisions, but reached a conclusion that is similar to Rachwani’s. “Yes, we can talk for days about ‘oppression of freedoms,’” he writes, “But, at the same time, the online press never made the required effort to organize the profession and emerge from a state of chaos and poor performance caused by some of the websites to a state of improved professionalism and a better freedom-responsibility equation.” Finally, the introduction to this article detailed how the wedding of online journalists to JPA members—which is the apparent intention of the law—has been characterized not as compliance but as further evidence of unprofessionalism amongst the news websites.
The government has found it beneficial to rally public support for a couple of reasons. First, since website blocking is manually enforced, the government can benefit from the public’s participation in finding and reporting websites to which it can apply the law. Noted cyber-skeptic Evgeny Morozov has referred to this practice as “crowdsourcing” censorship.[xix] Shawabkeh confirmed in a July 2013 interview that his department regularly accepts tips from citizens about websites that are supposedly violating the law. “I make sure that this website exists, is transmitting, and I make sure that the information . . . Once it’s approved that it’s an electronic news site, we block it,” he said.[xx] Second, public support for the law encourages compliance with the law’s licensing requirements. Regardless of their ideological convictions, journalists in Jordan face a cost-benefit calculation when deciding whether to register with the government, and the government has viewed reputational damage as a way to raise the costs of noncompliance.
In fact, websites have cited both of these factors as reasons for their compliance with the law. 7iber was added to the list of blocked websites not as part of the government’s original dragnet in June, but after an audience member at a public debate about the law alerted Shawabkeh to its existence. He stated, “I will look into it and if I find that it is a news website, I will block it,” and two days later, he unilaterally directed the Telecom Regulatory Commission to block the website from the country’s ISPs. 7iber initially refused to comply with the law and undertook a long campaign in opposition to it. 7iber instructed users on how to access blocked websites by using proxy servers and published infographics detailing legislative limits on freedom of expression in Jordan. It also founded mirror websites to evade the government’s blocking orders, switching domains from “.com” to “.org” to “.net” and eventually to “.me.” Finally, it brought together various stakeholders to discuss the law in open forums. Nevertheless, by December 2014, the government had threatened to sue 7iber for evading blocking orders. 7iber’s editors concluded had no option but to register with the government, especially “absent any collective mobilization that can create pressure to change the press law.”
7iber’s experience highlights the ad hoc nature of the law’s implementation and the questionable distribution of power underlying it. The press law’s definition of a “news website” as any website discussing “external or internal affairs of the Kingdom” is so broad as to be practically unenforceable. Whether the law applies to a given news website was thus left to the subjective evaluation of a single government bureaucrat. As the Director of the PPD, Shawabkeh had the authority to decide what constitutes a news website, to require these websites to register with the government, and to direct the country’s ISPs to block noncompliant websites, all without judicial oversight. This authority has since been vested in a different governmental body. Unfortunately, Shawabkeh never clarified the government’s definition of a “news website.” Instead, he granted exceptions from the law for similarly ill-defined “specialized websites” and blogs, even though there was no legal basis for him to make such exceptions. Also exempted from the law’s licensing requirements were social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, despite the fact that they ostensibly meet the law’s definition of a news website.
The already substantial potential for abuse in these subjective criteria was compounded by Shawabkeh’s apparent confusion about what distinguishes a specialized website or a blog from a news website. For example, when asked about the distinction between a blog and a news website, he stated, “The only difference is a very sensitive one—that you make a blog for yourself. You make a blog for you and your friends, maybe 200 or 300 people, but it’s not allowed for the public to enter to the blog and to see the blog.”[xxi] He further claimed that blogs are much like Facebook in that one has to be a “friend” of the blog in order to see its content. In a July 2014 article that originally appeared on 7iber and was republished on Jadaliyya, Ejeilat argued that the ambiguity surrounding these exceptions caused a chilling effect on speech in the Kingdom; since websites cannot be certain whether they fall into the excepted categories, they must assume that the press law applies to them.
Journalists in the online media have sought to undermine the image of the government as a protector of the journalism profession and of the mass public. Several months after the press law’s implementation, 7iber founded a media-monitoring project that has covered both traditional and online news outlets, and that encourages Jordanians to participate in the media’s self-regulation. Almost all of the press law’s critics have characterized website blocking as an attempt to vacate the Jordanian public sphere of critical voices in preparation for raising electricity prices, managing civil strife in Ma’an, and dealing with the politically destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war. Albosala.com’s Nasser Laffi appeared on Al Jazeera Arabic’s show “What’s Behind the News” and argued that the government “does not want to hear the voices of the poor Jordanian people, the orphans, and those who suffer from the consequences of these decisions. They also do not want street protest movements to appear across independent media outlets or electronic websites as they have in the past.”
Indeed, the effectiveness of the government’s stigmatization campaign is open to question. A video produced by Kharabeesh features Jordanian youth speculating about why the government misconstrued society’s plea to regulate pornographic websites as a mandate to regulate the online news media. One speaker says, "I think I know why they tie news with sex, because news, what do you call it, [gestures as he thrusts his hand towards his head] their brains." Another stated, “I started to think about the similarities between a news website and a pornographic website. Both involve exposing. One involves exposing truths, the other exposing bodies. So I expect that they have a problem with exposés." A final speaker states:
I think that you understood the public demands incorrectly because the public demand was calling for pornographic websites. So you all understood it as you wanted. You all understood that ‘pornographic’ means ‘provocative’ and anything that falls under the meaning ‘provocative’ the authorities can intervene... provocative news, a provocative article, a provocative website. So, no, you understood the topic incorrectly. We meant by ‘pornographic website,’ a sex website.
This sort of sample is unlikely to be representative of the Jordanian public at large, but the video illustrates the limits of the government’s ability to convince the mass public of the press law’s merits.
Theban’s newspaper op-ed faithfully reproduced the stigmas that the press law’s supporters had heaped upon the online media in the weeks before its publication: news websites have “grown like fungus,” online journalists have “no relation” to the journalism profession, and the JPA does not forget “the necessity of maintaining professional dignity from intruders.” The piece predictably resonated with Shawabkeh, who said it demonstrated the need to regulate news websites. “[News websites] don’t want to pay money,” he said. “They want to insult people […] they want to insult the professional people by paying them less.” [xxii] However, the piece also ironically illustrates how the press law and the JPA’s bylaws have conspired to suppress the country’s news websites; after his website was blocked, the news website employee was forced to accept – and pay for – JPA oversight of his operation if he wished to stay in business. Supporters of the press law will invariably criticize the employee for attempting to secure this oversight “in name only”. But such instances of alleged unprofessionalism must be understood in view of the regime’s history of interaction with the independent press, its overbroad implementation of the press law, and the stigmatization campaign that was used to achieve it. This context betrays the fact that the government’s implementation of the press law has been less about the rule of law on the Internet and more about containing the independent voices that emanate from it.
As once-defiant news websites now register with the government and the press law is normalized, Jordan’s independent press and its public have unfortunately emerged as the losing parties in Jordan’s new media sphere. By ensuring that all news websites are beholden to a JPA member, the government has made strides in applying its restrictive laws to cyberspace. News websites have taken foreseeable steps to protect themselves from prosecution, including removing their comment boxes and posting lengthy warnings to their readers. The government, possibly emboldened following its successful implementation of website blocking, has continued to enact and employ restrictive legislation. In January of 2015, for example, it jailed two online journalists for “aiding terrorism and spreading false news.” Perhaps the only websites that have emerged unscathed have been those whose unprofessionalism provided the pretext for governmental regulation: in the New Arab Debate cited above, Member of Parliament Jamil Nemri observed that some of the most unprofessional news websites were some of the first to successfully register with the government.
The Jordanian case highlights the multifaceted ways in which governments are adapting their methods of political control to the realities of the information age. Their enhanced technical expertise has enabled them to regulate their citizens’ online activities more than ever before. But policymakers, activists, and academics should continue to study and respond to governments’ non-technical innovations, among them the stigmatization campaign detailed here. The promotion of Internet freedom depends not only on citizens’ abilities to obtain the technical means to circumvent government control. It is also a matter of equipping citizens with the ability to counter governments’ rhetoric surrounding Internet freedom and online news media in principle and practice.
[i] Orayb Aref Najjar, "Media Policy and Law in Egypt and Jordan: Continuities and Changes," in Arab Media: Power and Weakness, edited by Kai Hafez (New York: Continuum, 2008), 132.
[ii] Orayb Aref Najjar, "Freedom of the Press in Jordanian Press Laws 1927-1998," in Mass Media, Politics, and Society in the Middle East, edited by Kai Hafez (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2001), 90.
[iii] Adam Jones, "From Vanguard to Vanquished? The Tabloid Press in Jordan," Political Communication 19, no. 2 (2002), 182.
[iv] Ibid, 182.
[v] Ibid, 183.
[vi] Orayb Aref Najjar, “The Ebb and Flow of the Liberalization of the Jordanian Press: 1985-1997”Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 75, no. 1 (1998), 132.
[vii] Jones, 182.
[ix] Interview by author, 6 July 2013.
[x] Interview by author, 15 July 2013.
[xi] Jones, 177.
[xii] Interview by author, 19 June 2013.
[xiii] Interview by author, 19 June 2013.
[xiv] Interview by author, 19 June 2013.
[xv] Interview by author, 15 July 2013.
[xvi] Interview by author, 19 June 2013.
[xvii] Lina Ejeilat, interview by author, 18 July 2013.
[xviii] Fayez Shawabkeh, interview by author, 9 July 2013.
[xix] Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2011), 104.
[xx] Fayez Shawabkeh, interview by author, 9 July 2013.