Thirteen years ago I attended an international event in Amman where then minister of information Saleh Qallab spoke enthusiastically about Jordan's new media policy. He specifically stressed the fact that the Internet will be an open and free space for everyone. I was so impressed that I decided there and then to set up an Internet radio station in a country that didn't allow anyone other than government to operate a radio station. Later at that conference in 2000 we were invited to an audience with His Majesty King Abdullah. I asked the King about the radio scene in Jordan noting that Jordanians are receivers of radio content from outside but are not able to be masters of their own radio voices. The King answered that he expects radio licences to be privatised within a few years. I went ahead and set up AmmanNet.Net and it became the Arab world's first independent Internet based radio station.
A few years I was able to also get a 10-year licence for a FM radio station (Radio Al Balad) in the capital. I was always worried about the FM radio and not the Internet site. Hundreds of sites that focus on news, audio and video commentary have mushroomed since then.
This week, however, in a decision that was clearly not well thought out the government ordered local Internet service providers to block some 300 news websites. The official reason is that these sites had failed to obtain licences from the Press and Publications Department in accordance with a law that Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour himself had voted against when he was a member of the Lower House. The controversial law, which was railroaded in Parliament, became effective last September. Jordanian website owners and relevant international bodies protested against this undemocratic law. The appointment of Ensour as prime minister was welcomed by local journalists and when the new premier visited the tent set up by protesting website owner and promised to deal with the new law with an open mind and goodwill, the protest was quietly halted.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the prime minister addressed the International Press Institute's 62nd World Congress in Amman and explained that Jordan hopes to deal with the new law through dialogue with stakeholders. A similar tone was struck when Princess Rym Ali, who attended a session about regulating websites, was asked to give a closing speech. She spoke highly of the idea that a multi-stakeholder approach is the best way to deal with problems that have arisen in this unregulated sector.
So it was a surprise after all these promises to wake up on June 2 and discover that the government had issued orders to block around 300 news websites that did not apply for the controversial licence in abidance by the Press and Publications Law. Among other stipulations, the legislation requires each website to appoint a chief editor who is a member of the country's only press association and holds online media publishers accountable for all content, including comments posted by readers. The irony is that the Jordan Press Association is a closed union open only to print journalists and employees of the government owned radio, TV and news agency. The JPA's bylaws don't recognise electronic media and don't allow reporters working for Internet sites or private radio and television stations to become members.
It is unclear what caused the normally press friendly Ensour government to take such drastic action.
Whatever the motivation is, the result has not been pleasant for Jordan. Local journalists and human rights organisations have strongly rejected the move, while regional and international human rights and media freedom groups have condemned it.
At the same time, with each passing day Jordanian geeks are finding ways to circumvent the move. One politically active cyber activists noted that Jordanians are becoming like Saudis, Tunisians and Syrians in learning how to use technology to get around these blockades. She explained that as a result Jordanians will now be able to enjoy "safe cyber surfing" using these undetectable software applications. In addition to being able to see the newly blocked sites, they will now be able to see some radical sites that had been quietly blocked for years. They will see these new sites without raising flags as they would have previously.
A look at the Google statistics of our own blocked website shows that the number of visitors has not dropped even though no one in Jordan is allowed to see us. This means that many of the 70 per cent of Jordanians that used to visit our site are simply getting around the blockade.
If such circumvention continues on a large scale, Jordan would have lost twice: the country would have received a public relations black eye while not really accomplishing the main purpose of blocking these websites.
This decision has widened the gap between citizens and the government. It is now even harder to believe that the government is of and for the people when it imposes such widespread punishment on its own people. The move to block Jordanians' access to these websites while they are available to the rest of the world means that the government is violating its own promise of having a well-informed citizenship. If the rest of the world is able to read about what is going on in Jordan but not Jordanians, this means that the country is not heading in the right direction when it comes to serious and lasting political reform.