By APCNews 24 July 2013
Since 2010, the Jordanian government has initiated a number of attempts to regulate and licence online “news websites,” a vague term that includes any site publicly reporting and commenting on current affairs both international and domestic. The government, in various statements, has cited lack of professionalism, character assassination, unsubstantiated accusations against public officials and defamation as the main justifications behind passing a regulatory law.
Media activists have long protested this law for two main reasons: civil society was left out of consultations on the details of the regulation and its measures risk major negative impacts on Jordan’s burgeoning online news sphere.
304 websites blocked
Protests leading up to the proposed law’s debate in Parliament did not succeed in blocking the legislation, which was passed during the last meeting before Parliament was dissolved in October 2012. The Senate ratified the law on the following Saturday, a non-working day, and the King then signed it immediately. “There was definitely a sense of urgency in passing the law,” noted 7iber editor Lina Ejeilat in an interview with APC. “The rising current of the Arab Spring had shattered many a taboo and opened new avenues for people’s expression. In Jordan, alarms were ringing more loudly around corruption from government officials.”
Despite the continued protests, on Sunday, 2 June 2012, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) sent a list of 304 “unlicenced” websites to the country’s internet service providers (ISPs), demanding their DNS or IP addresses be blocked by the end of day.
The new law orders websites to acquire an operating licence from the Print and Publications Department (PPD) that requires the site to have a managing editor registered in the Press Syndicate for at least four years, making clear that the policy aims to discredit writers or bloggers outside of the existing press establishment in Jordan. The law also holds editors responsible for the content of comments on their website’s articles.
Few news websites gave in to the new regulation and sought licences from the PPD in order to reinstate their websites. Many more refused to pursue licences on principle and promoted censorship circumvention instead, using their censored websites as an opportunity to raise more awareness and garner more public support against the law.
The case of 7iber.com
Pioneering in a typically apolitical blogosphere, in contrast to the vibrant blogospheres of Egypt and Syria, 7iber.com succeeded in building a community of bloggers and contributors that raise daring topics and challenge political, religious, social and sexual taboos. 7Iber.com was not among the initial list of blocked websites. Only until public debate opened was the website brought to the attention of a TRC official. Forty-eight hours later, 7iber was blocked. A government official said that upon investigation, it was deemed that 7iber.com “looked like a news website.”
“Government officials seemed to be confused about the difference between a blog and a news website. They seem to think that blogs have non-political content and can be accessed only by a group of friends,” Ejeilat said. “As we engaged more in debates around internet freedom, it became clear to us that by ‘news,’ the government meant ‘politics.‘”
Jordanians speak out against the law
Ever since the law was proposed, Internet freedom activists have stressed the law’s restriction on freedom of expression and have called the licencing scheme that the law proposes obsolete and undemocratic.
Opponents argue that mechanisms of accountability other than licences could be used for writers and furthermore that there are no adequate solutions for anonymous users who publish online using a variety of circumvention techniques. “It’s not worth the investment,” wrote former ICT Minister, Marwan Juma, on Facebook. “Countries who [have] tried to block sites failed and failed miserably. It costs millions and simply doesn’t work!”
Bloggers, activists, journalists and techies began an active campaign against the proposed law, forming a coordination committee called “7oryanet” (an Arabic play on words to mean “internet, you are free”), which organised a number of protests, blog actions and joint activities. 7oryanet stood firmly against the regulation and licencing requirement for news websites.
In a campaign hash-tagged #blackoutJO on August 29, 2012, over 150 Jordanian websites – including some of the country’s most popular startups – temporarily replaced home pages with a black screen and a message highlighting the dangers of potential content blocking.
Some in the private sector have also come out against the law. Jordan is known as “Silicon Wadi” (Arabic for valley) by local and international media for its emerging startup scene, thriving entrepreneurial environment, and high-speed internet access. Proponents of the flourishing IT sector are calling it a blow to investment and damaging to Jordan’s international reputation.
In response to the outcry, the government claimed that social networks and blogs would not be affected by this law, prompting a public debate on media classification. “Blogs can look like news websites and Facebook pages can post political news – where do you draw the line?” asked Ejeilat. “What’s to guarantee that the government will not block Facebook as well?”
Yet many activists believe the regulation is backfiring and will not be able to sustain itself with more people getting active on social networks to denounce the government actions and demand a repeal of the law.
“The ICT law of licensing websites must be viewed in the context of attempting to redraw some of the red lines that were challenged in the past,” Lina says. Online activists continue to protest the regulation and raise awareness internationally to pressure the Jordanian government to revoke the law. A few parliamentarians have even proposed lifting the content bans.
But civil society isn’t waiting on policy makers. 7iber.com techies, along with other groups, are encouraging users to bypass restrictions and have set up mirrors as well as a user’s how-to guide on circumvention (in Arabic). “Until we can revoke the legislation,” Ejeilat notes, “it’s a cat and mouse game with the TRC.”