Jordanian government’s attempts to gag on-line news sources

By Jordanian cartoonist Omar Momani

By Jordanian cartoonist Omar Momani

The ‘Arab Spring uprisings’ which toppled four Arab leaders, have forced many Mideast governments to reconsider their policies regarding freedom of expression in both, mainstream media and on-line news sources. The Jordanian government is not an exception.

Websites owners and citizen journalist protested a couple of months ago against the Jordanian government’s decision to block almost 300 news websites claiming that such websites are not licensed by the authorities. Many journalists and on-line activists saw the decision as another step towards restricting freedom of expression, aiming at “gagging” the electronic media in a country where there are almost 400 news website that provide alternative news to its 3.5 million people, half of whom are internet users.

Few days before this decision, Jordan’s Prime Minister, Abdullah Ensour, told the press at a meeting at the Vienna-based International Press Institute:  ‘Jordan has come a long way in improving legislation governing press freedoms after many years of strict state censorship of media outlets’. Shortly after, a massive wave of outrage broke following his government’s decision to block 290 news websites out of a total of 400 claiming that this step will ‘organise’ the online media sector. The sites blocked were mostly news outlets, including Al Jazeera. Norwegian energy company Statoil also had its site blocked by the Jordanian government.

The banning justification which went into effect on June 2d, 2013 has failed to convince Jordanians. The decision was enforced following clashes that broke between the police and the citizens of the city of Ma’an, 250km south of the Capital city of Amman, following unrest that went on for few days as this video released on the 29th May 2013 shows; during which the cameraman and reporter of RoyaNews, Abdullah el-Hsan, said that he was targeted with a tear gas grenade to stop him from filming.

The city of Maan has a high percentage of Islamists who sympathise deeply with the Syrian rebels. Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad reported on June, 6th 2013 that the leading figure in the Salafi jihadist movement Mohammad Shalabi, alias “Abu Sayyaf”, announced, that Anas Omeishan Awajan, a Salafi Jihadist from the city of Ma’an, was fighting against the Syrian regime in Damascus when he was killed, during an operation carried out in the city of Daraa and that he was buried there. Maan celebrated his death and described his funeral as a wedding of a martyr as can be seen in this YouTube video.

Abu Sayyaf  told the newspaper that “Awajan is the eighth man from the city of Ma’an to be killed inside Syria since the start of the Syrian revolution out of 15 current members fighting the Syrian army under the banner of Nusratu al- Sham as reported by Jordanian newspaper Alghad.

The public exposure of high ranking personnel’s corruption, the vulnerability of Jordan after opening its borders to the Syrian refugees and the struggling economy and high unemployment in Jordan made on-line journalism a favourite source of news because of its news content that will never be covered by mainstream state controlled media. ’The main objective of enforcing this law, is to gag and restrict the freedom of the electronic media’ says Nidal Mansour, Head of the Amman-based Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists.

‘Since 1993 Jordanian government issued seven media and publication laws that did not contribute to regulating or changed the claimed media content. The issuance and enforcement of this law restricts freedom of the press and contradicts the constitution, treaties and conventions signed by Jordan’ Mansour added.

Jordanian on-line publishers complained that the country’s media law significantly restricts press freedoms by imposing harsh penalties on violators, forcing journalists to practice self-censorship. The law passed last September requires of all news websites to be registered in the Press and Publications Department and to obtain a license to subject online news websites to the same laws governing newspapers and press publications. The law preconditions all editors-in-chief of all news website must be members of the Jordanian Journalists Syndicate and will hold online news sites accountable even for the comments left by their readers. The websites owner are requested as well to archive all readers comments for at least six months. Khaled al-Majali, editor in chief of Kul IlOrdon news website “allofjo.net” described the decision as follows:

‘it brings Jordan back to the times of martial law, which came from a customary non-elected government that has nothing to do with democracy or the -people are the source of authority- principal mentioned in the constitution’. al-Majali argues ‘this law came to shut down targeted websites considered to cross the red lines and did not give in to extortion, blackmail and control”.

He warned that this law “intends to silence not only the news websites that are not licensed as claimed, but also intimidates syndicated websites that fear the same fate of being shutdown at any moment.” Al-Majali pointed out that the requirements mentioned in the law to ‘organise’ news websites, such as the precondition of appointing an editor who has been a member of the journalists union for at least four-years, by working for state press, are incapacitating. This precondition aims to convert websites to daily newspapers controlled by the state. ‘It is only natural that if you appoint an editor who has worked at a daily newspaper, he will be familiar with the controls and restrictions and he will practice self-censorship’, he explained.

Taher Al-Odwan, former Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications said that attempting to block news websites or restricting electronic media to gag people, will be a failing attempt, because most of the blocked sites can be accessed by other means. “The decision reflects lack of media freedoms and the government’s attempts to control the media and put its grip on it through laws and regulations’ he added. To circumvent this decision, some websites changed their licences category at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, to socio-cultural websites, to avoid the provisions of the Press and Publications.

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