[…] the [Telecommunications Regulatory] Commission directs you to do what is required to block the websites listed in the attached document and prevent your subscribers from accessing them before the end of today, June 2, 2013. Note that the websites that don’t have a URL in the list, you will be provided with later.
This is the request sent by the Jordanian Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on 2 June 2013, and published by Jordanian citizen media platform 7iber. The request is in line with legislation enforced back in September 2012––the Press and Publications Law. The Press and Publications Department, a state entity once formally known as thee Censorship Department, is now in charge of applying this law.
Jordan counts nearly 500 online news outlets. According to the current version of the Press and Publications Law, any such website has to register with the Press and Publications Department in order to obtain a license. Registering is reported to cost 1,000 Jordanian dinars (1,400USD). The websites listed in the blocking request are deemed “unlicensed,” meaning having neither obtained a license nor applied to obtain one. Reportedly, 102 websites remain accessible for either having obtained a license or for having applied for such within the official deadlines.
The move caused a deluge of discussions on a wide range of media channels, when Press and Publications Department director denied a fee is required to get registered and after a cement factory website was identified as listed among the websites to be blocked for allegedly manufacturing paper. As no official has offered commentary on these discrepancies, the process through which websites are selected for blocking remains obscure.
Freedom of Speech in Jordan
This is not the first time censorship of online content in Jordan makes the headlines. Several years ago, the Jordanian government approved a code of conduct aiming at fostering “a free and independent media.” In its 2009 annual report, the Amman-based National Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists concluded that media freedoms deteriorated in 2009. In that year’s report, the OpenNet initiative highlighted the selective censorship of politically-oriented online content, adding that “media laws and regulations encourage some measure of self-censorship in cyberspace.”
Back in 2010, a vaguely worded provisional information systems law was approved by the cabinet of ministers at the time. Article 13 of this cyber crimes law gives carte blanche to the police to access computers used by journalists from the electronic press without prior authorization from public prosecutors. There was significant concerns that under this law, bloggers, citizen, and independent journalists would be treated in the same manner as credit card fraudsters and websites promoting pornography or terrorism. Acoulso in 2010, a ruling by the Jordanian Court of Cassation classified websites as “publications,” thus subjecting them to penalties under already highly controversial Press and Publications Law. In line with the latter, journalists could be sued for anything “deemed offensive or imply criticism of the government, national unity, or the economy.”
Back in 2012, while the Press and Publications Law was still a bill, various organizations drew attention to the proposed amendments warning that these would give the government greater authority to restrict freedom of expression. These amendments were implementing the obligation for news websites to register with the authorities and thus to accept liability not only for any content they publish, but also for the comments published by readers. A serious backlash from journalists and news outlets followed, but the Jordanian government defended its actions. This was happening against the backdrop of censorship moves by Jordan’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology who contracted an unnamed Australian company to develop systems for filtering pornographic websites, an announcement that was met with resounding criticism.
On 19 August 2012, more than 500 websites went black in a civil-society-mobilized SOPA-style blackout in protest of the draft Press and Publications Law. The online protest was paralleled by demonstrations outside Jordan’s Parliament and statements against the draft legislation by groups such as Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists. Even Queen Noor supported the mobilization through her Twitter account. These efforts, however, did not achieve success. Both houses of Parliament and King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan endorsed the controversial media law amendments.
According to Freedom House, which releases free speech indicators on a yearly basis, Jordan is rated as ‘Not Free’ in Freedom in the World 2013, ‘Not Free’ in Freedom of the Press 2013, and was rated ‘Partly Free’ in Freedom on the Net 2012. Recently, a survey by the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists showed that 86% of Jordanian journalists recognize practising self-censorship, an activity they engage into due to governmental attempts to influence their work.
Chilling Effects Reloaded
It is how the Press and Publications Law enacts the mandatory registration of online news outlets with the Press and Publications Department that makes it most ominous. The constraints it imposes over online news outlets act as a straitjacket. Article 49 of the Law requires that any “electronic publication that engages in publication of news, investigations, articles, or comments, which have to do with the internal or external affairs of the kingdom” must obtain registration and licensing from the Press and Publications Department. More precisely, getting registered leads to obtaining a license which makes the websites subject to the general regulations that govern traditional print media––appointing an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the Jordan Press Syndicate for at least four years. The Syndicate-related regulation, however, has not been updated to accept as members journalists working with online outlets. The deadline to get the website registered was 17 January 2013.
The Press and Publications Law appears to be much more than a toothless paper tiger. Journalist who are members of the state-controlled Jordan Press Syndicate are under close surveillance from the intelligence services. In the Hashemite kingdom, the state is the major shareholder of the most popular newspapers (Jordan Times and al-Dustur), thus exerting strong influence over their content. Even though press offenses have supposedly been decriminalized since 2007, journalists in Jordan fear jail as the national legislation contains various provisions that allow such sentences to be enacted. Additionally, the decriminalization of press offenses was paralleled with a significant increase in fines for “defamation” and “insult to religion,” in particular. Moreover, the crime of lèse-majesté persists (punishable by up to three years in jail), which keeps journalists and citizens away from public criticism of the monarch, despite King Abdullah II holding final authority on most matters. Since 2007, online news outlets have been regulated in the same manner as the written press. Thus, jurisprudence being quite unpredictable, convictions against the press continue to occur. Close examination by the intelligence push editors and journalists to be cautious about the positions they adopt, and more particularly driving them to altogether avoid investigative reporting that could compromise political figures.
Comments posted in response to news are growing critical towards Jordan’s King and his government. After the Press and Publications Law was amended back in 2012, several websites switched off comments on their platforms. With bloggers having already been arrested in Jordan and journalists reporting threats and harassment, self-censorship has festered.
And Now What?
Ironically, widespread censorship coincides with the launch of Demoqrati––King Abdullah’s latest initiative to promote “democratic empowerment and active citizenship.” In his letter to the kingdom’s citizens, the King speaks about building “political engagement across society:”
By supporting ‘social entrepreneurs’ to have a greater say in public affairs, Demoqrati will help expand the tools and platforms – debate forums, training programmes and others – available to all Jordanians to enable them to be active and engaged citizens.
Demoqrati will initially focus on efforts to increase transparency, provide new ways for Jordanians to discuss and debate critical issues facing the country, and seek to harness the talents and creativity of all Jordanians in the service of society.
It is intriguing, to say the least, how “social entrepreneurs” will be successful and transparency will be increased while it is a matter of emergency to impose a shackling of independent websites through a totally obscure selection process.
At this point, it is not yet clear which ISPs have obeyed the order to block websites. Mainstream media have reported all 304 websites are blocked. Reports from inside Jordan confirm that many of the websites are blocked, and the process is progressing smoothly to encompass all outlets deemed ‘unlicensed’ according to the Press and Publications Department. Daoud Kuttab, founder and editor-in-chief of renowned independent news provider AmmanNet, issued a statement after the website was blocked condemning “the decision [which] violates Jordan’s local, regional, and international commitments,” and naming it “a blow to the country’s standings.” AmmanNet.net was founded in 2000 and is number one in the list of websites to be blocked in the terms of the Press and Publications Law.
Jordan also enjoys several strong citizen’s organizations such as the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA) who have been tracking various attempts to censor the Internet in the country as well as the Jordan Charter of Digital Rights which provides a form through which blocked websites can be notified. Condemnations from civil society followed shortly after the news broke out: an open-ended sit-in kicked off on 3 June in front of the Journalists Syndicate, and JOSA deplored the decision renewing “its opposition to any attempts on instilling governmental censorship on the Internet.” JOSA rightly pointed out that such technical measures are inefficient. Indeed, AmmanNet’s Daoud Kuttab said he was posting news on Facebook and on other web platforms his company owned that remain unaffected. Others among the blocked news outlets include the popular site jo24.net set up ways to get around the access blockage and alerted subscribers by e-mail. A collection of proxies known as UnCensorJo.net allows internet users from inside Jordan to circumvent blocking, and the Jordan Charter of Digital Rights has set up a guide helping people to access censored content.
Beyond purely technical concerns, criticism has also been addressed once more against the inherent make-up of the law: it is impossible to implement the preconditions in the law because Jordan Press Syndicate refuses to accept the electronic press as part of its membership and mandate. Thus, it is a dead-end situation as the Press and Publications Law requires online news outlets abide to its requirement to have Syndicate members as editors-in-chief. International free speech defenders such as Human Rights Watch have also criticized the move, and Freedom House issued a statement condemning the decision to block hundreds of independent media outlets outlining:
The requirement that news sites obtain government approval reinforces self-censorship and places a disproportionate burden on editors and administrators to police controversial comments posted to their sites, or risk a hefty fine. In addition, the blocking measures contravene the right of Jordanians to access information from a variety of viewpoints and online sources. Most worryingly, gray areas within the law leave the door open for authorities to unfairly and arbitrarily target websites that question government policies or criticize public officials.
Jordan thus makes a remarkable entry in the club of Middle Eastern countries witnessing continued repression of online freedom of speech––dozens were imprisoned in Kuwait in a state-promoted effort to stop online dissent, a crackdown on freedom of speech disguised as charges for “insult to the Emir.” The United Arab Emirates has promulgated a Cybercrime Law in 2012 which already led to people being sentenced to months in jail for “sedition” against the backdrop of the UAE94 trial. And in Qatar, a draft cybercrime law aims at punishing anyone penetrating government websites but also contains provisions about the infringement of “the social principles or values” of information shared online which threatens the little freedom of expression still enjoyed by residents.