The decision by the Jordanian Court of Cassation to classify websites as "publications" and thus apply the Press and Publications Law to them is troubling.
Unlike other laws that criminalize press violations, Jordan's Press and Publications Law only allows civilian punishment, meaning that electronic media violators might be fined, but not jailed. But the problem facing web-based publications is much more complicated when it comes to jailing or fining web publishers.
To begin with, a major problem exists when having all web-based publishing fall under the Press and Publications Law. The web is a much bigger format than a newspaper or a television station. Today, 10-year olds are encouraged to create their web pages; watwet, the local affiliate of Twitter, has thousands of "publishers," and businesses, lawyers, sports enthusiasts and so many others are producing text, image, audio and video on their websites. The idea that all these web producers and bloggers have to register with the government, having to pre-censor their content and being punishable by the Press and Publications Law will cause a major retraction to Jordan's standing as an open society.
The Press and Publications Law, even with its latest amendment that removed criminality, classifies journalists as members of the Jordan Press Association. The Jordanian press syndicate is a single union and is considered regionally and internationally as a closed shop. Membership is closed to electronic media. So this legal ruling creates a catch-22. Anything published on line is considered a publication that must be done by journalists, yet most web-based publishers are not journalists as per the Jordanian law.
The law also criminalizes anyone professing without license.
As far as content is concerned, the Press and Publications Law is very vague. Publishing anything that negatively affects national unity, denigrates religion and religious symbols, shakes confidence in the national currency, criticizes leaders of Arab and friendly countries and negatively affects national unity is considered a violation. This allows for a wide interpretation and has for years contributed to the weakening of the Jordanian press.
It is exactly these restrictions in Jordan and other Arab countries that have caused many to exert their efforts abroad. Arab publications have proliferated in places like Cyprus, London, Paris and Rome.
Jordanian reporters for Arab and international publications have also enjoyed much more freedom in what they can write and broadcast about. But the biggest emigration of Jordanian media activists has been electronic. With electronic publication based where the server is based, tens of Jordanian websites were created and got involved in a vibrant debate of issues of interest to Jordan and Jordanians. Naturally not all new sites have followed proper journalistic ethics. Various Jordanian contradictions have been exposed on these sites, often in their anonymous comment sections.
Shady individuals have been involved in setting up some of these sites and apparently have been using them to leverage income from sponsors or advertisers who were "forced" to advertise in order to make unpleasant content disappear.
While some arguments for regulating web publications can be made, the process that Jordan seems to be going through has only been carried out in autocratic regimes. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a recent blog that Syria, Iran and Tunisia have taken similar action.
Attempts to control online media are not new. If Jordanian courts and police will consider a website based in Holland to be Jordanian because of the citizenship of its owner, it will only be a matter of time before Jordanian web entrepreneurs will find non-Jordanians to register their websites.
A bigger problem, of course, is going to be enforcement. How will a few workers be able to monitor and follow up on violators? Without a regular and fair enforcement mechanism, some fear that selective enforcement will take place, inviting politically motivated control over Jordanian websites.
The decision of the Court of Cassation has provoked a wide protest movement among the tens of Jordanian website owners. It has also produced numerous statements by Jordanian officials, ensuring that the government is not opposed to the vibrant debate created by the electronic media and that website owners will not have to register.
Media production is a complicated process that cannot be regulated or controlled by a law or a court decision. The best and most efficient way to ensure the success and continuity of Jordanian electronic media is self regulation and commitment to professional media standards.
Follow Daoud Kuttab on Twitter: www.twitter.com/daoudkuttab