AMMAN, Jordan — The Arab Spring uprisings that toppled four Arab leaders have forced Mideast governments to allow more freedom of expression and of the press, Jordan's prime minister said Monday, but critics charged that Jordan itself is not doing enough.
Abdullah Ensour told a meeting of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, "The past few years have been very crucial to our region, because the Arab Spring has opened new horizons and created more demands" for wider freedoms of expression and the press.
Ensour said Jordan has "come a long way" in improving legislation governing press freedoms after many years of strict state censorship of media outlets.
"Obviously, we're not yet where we want to be, but we are determined to continue," he said.
Jordanian participants at the conference complained that the country's media law, significantly restricting press freedoms by imposing harsh penalties on violators, forces journalists to practice self-censorship.
Nidal Mansour, head of the Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists – IPI's hosting partner – said that the press law updated last year was designed to muzzle press freedom.
"The Press and Publication Law has been and continues to be a sword on the necks of all journalists in Jordan," he said. The law has been amended at least seven times in 10 years.
The latest legislation requires websites dealing with vaguely defined "press materials" to register with the Department of Press and Publication, once officially called the Censorship Department, and pay a fee of $1,400 (1,000 Jordanian dinars). Websites are also required to appoint a Jordanian chief editor who would be held accountable for all online content, including comments posted by readers.
Under the law, the director of the Department of Press and Publication has the authority to block websites, including those originating from abroad, if they are deemed in violation of the law.
Since the Arab Spring uprisings, Jordan's government has appeared to ease restrictions on freedom of expression, opinion and assembly. It has allowed protests to take place without seeking prior permission from the government. However, other constraints remain, including a ban on criticizing the king in public, punishable by up to three years in jail. King Abdullah II holds final authority in most matters.
While the government approved a code of conduct several years ago with the intention of fostering a "free and independent media," journalists are still closely watched by intelligence agencies and often report harassment and threats. Bloggers have been arrested by Jordanian authorities, and as a result, many practice self-censorship. Last year, a private satellite TV station was closed after airing views critical of members of the royal family.
Ensour pledged more liberalization, noting that there are about 500 local news services online. He said two-thirds of the percent of the population can access the Internet, and local firms translate Web content into Arabic for the local audience.
He said Jordan ranks third in the Arab world in active users of social media networks. For example, two out of five Jordanians use Facebook, he said.
IPI's two-day annual World Congress meeting, which opened in Jordan on Monday, is discussing media freedom in the region following the Arab Spring, challenges covering the Syria civil war, reporting on religion, the role of women in the media, criminal defamation, Internet regulation and how media and governments can work together to fight corruption.