Jordanian Websites Go Dark in Protest of Proposed Legislation to Censor Internet

Over two hundred Jordanian websites went dark on Wednesday, in a SOPA-like protest of draft legislation that would allow the government to block and censor Internet content. The action was coordinated by a grassroots organization of tech savvy Jordanians and the editors of various Jordanian websites, with blackout screens on dozens of widely read digital news sites and blogs.

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The blackout was augmented by Twitter participation via the hashtags #blackoutjo and #freenetjo and a website called 7oryanet(Freedomnet). Queen Noor (@QueenNoor), the mother of King Abdullah II of Jordan (@King_AbdullahII) and mother-in-law of Queen Rania (@QueenRania), joined the protest on Twitter, calling the proposed legislation “hypocrisy.
The Internet blackout protest was originally planned for September, in response to the demand of a conservative grassroots group, Ensaf, that the government filter pornography sites. Local Internet freedom advocates responded to the anti-pornography group with a Facebook page called “I know how to protect myself.” The government’s tepidly supportive attitude to Ensaf, combined with the many followers it had garnered for its Facebook page, gave rise to concerns that a wide consensus in favor of banning online porn would provide the government with an opportunity to give itself more power to control the Internet. When the details of the draft legislation was released last week, the activists’ fears were confirmed. The proposed amendment to the existing Press and Publication Law, if passed and enforced, would indeed grant the government sweeping powers to censor and block online content, stifling debate and the free expression of opinion. And so the protest was coordinated and carried out within four days.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Jordanian blogger and Internet activist Naseem Tarawnah (@tarawnah) explains how the amendment to the law would allow the government to control online content arbitrarily.
The draft legislation includes articles that would hold online media accountable for any comments left by their readers, and would prohibit them from publishing any comments deemed irrelevant to the published article. Moreover, online media organizations would also be required to archive all comments left on their sites for at least six months. However, the most troublesome amendment essentially requires online media to register with and obtain a license from the Press and Publications Department, paying a fee of roughly $1,400 (lowered from an initially proposed $14,000), and giving the government the ability to block sites failing to comply. Bringing online news sites in to the folds of the Press and Publications law would therefore require them to be mandatory members of the Jordan Press Association, and undergo the same regulations governing print publications, including appointing an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the association for a minimum of four years.
The Jordanian government’s last serious attempt to impose control over digital content was in 2010, when the Supreme Court handed down a decision that would put blogs in the same category as news publications. This would have subjected bloggers to existing legal restrictions, making them liable to be prosecuted for personal defamation or for defaming religion and holy prophets. Local bloggers banded together in opposition to the court’s ruling, seeing it as a means of stifling healthy debate.
Lina Ejeilat (@Lina18), editor in chief of the bilingual news site 7iber.com, calls the government’s proposed law to censor Internet content a “desperate attempt” to re-assert control. “I think the government has become emboldened in the last few months,” she said. “A year ago they felt the need to reform to keep up with the Arab Spring. But now with everyone worried about the situation in Syria there’s a sense that the government needs to be strong. In Jordan, the regime always played the card of security and stability, as if this were mutually exclusive with true democracy. They got away with arresting a blogger in April [on charges of criticizing the royal family]. Less than a month ago they shut down a satellite station that aired a talk show that was critical of the king and queen. The authorities denied they had shut it down because of the talk show, claiming the issue was financial, but the timing is suspicious.”
Ejeilat said that the blackout campaign had been very successful in raising awareness of the government’s proposed legislation. Online activism is vibrant and powerful in Jordan, she said, explaining that while demonstrations do not tend to attract many participants in Jordan, the action online more than compensates for the lack of street presence.
Jordan is perhaps unique in the Middle East, in that its government cares very much about world opinion. For the last decade, explained Ejeilat, Jordan has been working very hard to improve its image abroad as an IT innovation and textile hub. Short in natural resources and surrounded by countries with unstable regimes, Jordan is stuck between “Iraq and a hard place,” as the king once joked to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Its image as a modern, open country that is friendly to foreign investment could take a serious hit if it were to start limiting freedom of expression online. That is why Jodan’s online protest in English and Arabic carries serious weight. Lina Ejeilat said that Wednesday’s protest blackout “restored my faith that people are still able to engage in grassroots protest. I still think the Internet is a fantastic tool.”
Parliament’s decision on the proposed new law is pending.
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