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Daoud Kuttab

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Jordanian Website Owners Reject Attempts to Gag Them

Posted: 09/27/2012 9:59 am

Among the most important rights achieved by Arab demonstrators in the past two years are the freedoms of assembly and of expression.

Millions of Arabs gathered in squares and circles demanding an end to autocratic rules and a share in the political decision-making processes in their countries.

Along with the freedom of assembly, the Arab Spring brought about increased freedom of expression. Young people successfully used social media to communicate, organize and express themselves. Traditional print media, radio and television (especially satellite stations) also witnessed marked freedom and, more importantly, a retraction (although not an end) of government interference.

Due to the Arab Spring, journalists (whether traditional or citizen journalists) felt more empowered to say things and cover issues that used to be considered taboo.

In some Arab countries, such as Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, media entrepreneurs felt courageous enough to start their own radio stations even before the new powers in their countries introduced audiovisual regulations. In other countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, web-based media also developed quickly, with online newspapers, radio stations and web TV flourishing.

Yet there are attempts now to roll back some of the achievements pertaining to freedom of expression, especially online. The Jordanian government's argument for restricting these freedoms is that it wishes to regulate online media, rather than restrict it. It says that the unregulated proliferation of and the anonymous comments on news websites encourage character assassination and defamation of individuals without proof or opportunity for the injured party to properly defend itself.

Furthermore, governments claim that a number of news websites blackmail individuals and corporations by threatening to fabricate news about them unless they agree to buy ad space or offer other forms of financial reward.

The amendment of the Press and Publications Law in Jordan was signed into law on September 17. The new law forces all news website owners to register and get licensed under the same restrictive regulations as newspapers, or risk having their websites blocked by court order. Unregistered foreign sites can be blocked through an administrative decision.

Reporters Without Borders expressed "deep concern" about the new law.

"These new curbs on freedom of expression, which affect online media in particular, have swept aside the reform promises that the government made at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011," it said.

"This law, under which Jordan's 220 news websites will have to obtain government accreditation to continue operating, is clearly designed to increase the regime's control over the media, especially online media, at a time when the Internet is playing a major role in informing and rallying the Arab population," it added.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the danger of the amendments to the Press and Publications Law "arise from [the] vague definition of the 'electronic publications' that would be subject to the law, new executive power to block websites, and unreasonable restrictions on online content, including comments posted by website users."

Journalists, politicians and civil society activists reject attempts at muzzling online media, saying that they prefer self-regulation rather than government-imposed restrictions. They offered to register as a way to allow those wrongly attacked to sue.

Basel Ukor, of the website Jo24 and a leader of the online protests, is adamant about the refusal to get licensed.

"Applying for a license gives the government the right to say who they want to allow and who they will refuse."

Ukor, along with other Jordanian website owners, protest the law, saying that they will refuse en masse to apply for the license, for which they have 90 days to apply. They called their refusal to register "electronic disobedience."

Journalists and civil society activists observe a two-hour protest daily; it has attracted widespread support from different sectors of the Jordanian society.

Columnists and activists say they fear that the real aim of the government is to stop the websites from exposing corruption and government excesses.

Governments apply restrictive regulations and individual punitive actions in order to teach lessons. Protesters are arrested under the charge "of acting to change the regime," while websites are restricted now under a law that forces website owners to be responsible for comments made in their news reports.

Controlling thought and opinion is impossible in today's connected world. Jordanians, the majority of whom are under 25, are able to quickly overcome direct website blockades by electronically bypassing them, but the government does not trust them to be mature enough to decipher the content of the news.

 

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