On Jordan Censoring The Internet

A few days ago we were all surprised to learn that a ruling from Jordan’s Supreme Court decided to include “websites” as subject to the country’s notorious Press & Publications Law. The reason bloggers, technologists, activists, journalists, free thinkers and anyone with a half a brain and a beating heart has been up in arms about this decision recently, is due to the fact that the press and publications law is not only vague, but including “websites” in this court ruling makes it all the more ambiguous. It’s easier when you’re dealing with newspapers and magazines – traditional forms of print media that have a single format and a single product – but when you say “websites” what does that mean? As some have asked (or assumed), will blogs be included? Worse yet, will comments left on blogs be included? What about a tweet? What about retweeting someone’s controversial tweet? What about Facebook? These are all questions we need to be asking, and the reason we have few answers is largely due to the government’s approach of the issue; a status quo that we have begged our state to change; a void of information creates a space for misinformation, speculation and inevitably, exaggeration.

Nevertheless, these questions should be asked, they should be debated, they should be grappled with and that should happen within the safe confines of a local conversation, many of which you can find scattered throughout Jordan’s online world this week, and a particularly interesting one of which you can find on 7iber.

But this is not a post about questions, answers and ambiguities.

For the sake of full disclosure, that this is one issue I aim to fight hands on and not merely with a keyboard and this will hinder what I can and express in this post (self-censorship for the better good). It goes without saying that behind the scenes people are already working to lobby government in hopes of putting a stop to these moves before the country’s last thread of free speech disappears in to the dark abyss, never to return. At this stage, everyone concerned, including Internet users in Jordan, are all undergoing a “learning” process where unknowns are being unraveled and legalities are being deciphered, none of which is an easy task when the government’s idea of informing the public is a press release, followed by silence. Nevertheless, fighting something like this requires educating oneself so that the battle is not whittled down to the poetry of free speech and civil liberties, when in fact this issue stretches beyond that. In order to fight something you have to clearly define what it is you’re fighting, and in this matter, things are far from being clear at this point.

But this is not a post about free speech or civil liberties.

This is not a post about ramifications and consequences, predictions, assumptions or conclusions.

This post is about the way things work in Jordan – or sometimes, don’t.

This post is about gaps.

Because at the heart of such court rulings, government shifts, reactionary states and on-the-ground interpretations – is a gap, and frankly speaking (if such a thing is still possible in Jordan), there are just too many gaps in our country. There is a gap between vision and implementation; between leadership and government, between government and people, between people and people.

There is a gap between King’s comment left on this blog little under a year and a half ago and where we stand today:

Abdullah II – July 5, 2008: Thank you all for your feedback and comments. I am very happy and proud to see so many responsible citizens engaging in this dialogue. People must not be afraid to express their opinions without using aliases. We are a country of freedom, tolerance, diversity and openness, and everyone has the right to express their thoughts – no matter what they are – in an atmosphere of respect, so long as they are not personally offending others, attempting character assassination or undermining the nation’s interest. Your comments only indicate how deeply you care about Jordan and its future and I am happy that we are partners in the development process.

The court’s recent ruling and the government’s current stance on the matter stands undeniably in stark contrast to the King’s comment, which one could label as a vision for the web.

Personally speaking, I am not a proponent of those who wield the web for sinister purposes, including articles, posts and comments that are intended to offend others or character assassinations. While I do recognize that these things do happen online unfortunately, I also recognize that people are free to pursue those whom have done them harm online through the current legal system that is available to all of us. Is the government concerned with safeguarding the people from such slander and defamation? I don’t know.

Because there is a gap between what the government thinks and what the government tells us (or in this case, doesn’t tell us). There is a gap in communication; a daunting void. We’re not told anything, so we don’t know much, which means we’re forced to speculate. And by the way, you really know things are bad when you have to start speculating about what rights you have as a citizen.

Now if the government’s concern stretches beyond protecting the people, and is more aligned towards the web being used to criticize it – the government – then they will find themselves as declared enemies of free speech. Governments should be open to criticism and the people, vis a vis the media (both online and offline), should be at the helm of such criticism. How else can governments improve, change, be held accountable and sustain an open door of transparency? These are elements that should never be commandeered by the government. Transparency is not a privilege that the government bestows on us; it is a right that is demanded by the people. And so is free speech for that matter.

HM King Abdullah only recently spoke about creating a new era of transparency in government. It is now on the government to understand that it cannot be the entity that holds itself accountable, which is akin to a student grading himself. This is a task that is left to a proper mechanism of checks and balances that can only be maintained by the people and the tools at their disposal, the strongest of which is a flourishing free media sector.

But again, there is a gap.

There is a gap between a vision at the very top and the process it takes toward implementation; the trickle-down from King to prime minister to ministers to deputies to middle management to employees and subsequently, to the people. And in a country where the system of governance is much more complex than that, the trickle-down effect becomes increasingly intricate in nature.

There is a gap between what is said and what is done; what is told to us and what is done. This is not an interpretation, nor is this merely an opinion. It is a fact. It is a reality that exists within the realms of this Kingdom and is unfolding all around us. It is a gap that we experience daily. It is a gap that needs to be closed.

It has long left us in a daze of confusion.

Confusion breeds fear.

Fear breeds censorship of the self.

I can only hope that this new government is keen on working to bridge those gaps in order to not only fulfill HM King Abdullah’s vision but that of the will of the people as guaranteed by the Jordanian constitution. It is a process that will require bringing the people in to the folds of a public debate, and not shutting them out by infringing on what little mediums and platforms of communication they have left.

The Jordanian state has had a long legacy of fighting extremism in all it’s forms. I can only hope that they recognize this court ruling and any subsequent attempts to regulate the Internet in Jordan as being an extremist reaction to a fixable problem. I can only hope that they recognize the way to finding a solution to a public issue is to include the public.

26 thoughts on “On Jordan Censoring The Internet

  1. I have this growing hunch, or maybe its a hope, that the result will not be inclusive of blogs, tweets, facebook, or anything other than news sites. But even that is really, the “lesser of two evils” (the greater evil being internet-wide regulation)… I’m looking forward to the emergence of more clearly defined “lobbying” or “petitioning” groups for that matter. I’ve seen a few initiatives but we need more ‘volume’ and ‘unification’ in such initiatives.

  2. Well written Naseem. Its those gaps that make us feel lost at the end of the day and push for more self-censorship or self-imposed-oppression, the worst type of oppression if i may describe it as such.

  3. This is probably the most fair and balanced assessment of the situation concerning this court ruling that i have read so far, so thank you very much for that.
    There is one thing that bothers me about the whole situation though, it is the fact that I have still not been able to find out the details of this individual court ruling, and i believe that it’s very important to know this.
    As we know, the rulings of the Jordanian Supreme Court (ma7kamet al tamyeez) are only binding to the individual cases upon which the rulings take place. It is not like America where court ruling precedents become law, and there are many precedents where the Jordanian supreme court’s rulings where noticeably ineffective in numerous similar cases other than that which the rulings were specifically concerned with. The starkest example of that is in how ma7kamet al tamyeez over turned decisions by the court of national security, (ma7kamet amn al dawla) based on its judgment that the mere existence of the court of national security is unconstitutional after the cancelation of Emergency Law under which that court was assembled. The national security court still exists to this day and is fully functional.
    Defamation is punishable under the Jordanian penal law no matter what media it took place in, so why was the publications law applicable in this instant, this is what I need to know. And excuse my ignorance in this matter.

  4. ok, never mind me, the court ruling is explained in the article on 7iber.com… sorry about that… but still, this ruling only applies to that case in particular, so the argument still stands!

  5. wella yalla..
    I don’t see a gap, what I see and many see is not a problem in the trickle down process..because if you really look closer you can see that many things are trickling down none of which is the treatment of Jordanians as adults. But the gap exists between what we hear and what we see on the ground..this gap has existed since forever..it is a gap that is designed to inflate and deflate our hope as they see fit..it is as if we are little children trying to catch something our “adults” are holding up..those “adults” will never give us that something, they will just bring it a bit closer to us then move it back again..and we will be just talking about how next time they might give it to us..and give it to us they did..

    Words, words, words is all what we heard for god knows how long..jordan first,we are all jordan, national agenda, youth committees,appointment letters, addresses, etc…and where are we today? Stop blaming the surrounding environment and deliver for Jordanians..we have been bending over for so long and we are yet to see the “fruits” of that..we are now looked at with suspicion everywhere we go, and now you want to take our right to speak away? let us save some face by speaking out, and by opposing..stop treating us as children..involve us in the decision making..it is in your own good..people are holding you accountable both ethically and morally..let us be responsible for our own decision making..let us be accountable to and for ourselves..

    Disclaimer: هذا الكلام لا يعبر عن رأيي وإنما كان خارج عن إرادتي وتم كتابتو تحت سورة الغضب المفضي إلى الهذربه. ننتهز هذي الفرصة لنشكر جلالة سيدنا والحكومه الرشيده على كل قرار اتخذوا وراح يتخذوا.

  6. I’m not sure if the government in Jordan is currently utilizing Total Quality Management Systems in their day to day functions, if they do then what is up with all of the misunderstanding that is occuring so frequently, notwithstanding, and if they are not i hope that our new prime minister is reading this blog and as a result would consider, installing a TQM programs for the entire government. It will be used as a bench mark for guaging the performance of the people that work for the government from the top officials to the lowest level state workers. TQM has proven to be a very effective tools when it was used in Japan & in the US in the nineties.It may help in eliminating a lot of the deficiencies that are being repeatedly committed by some officials. A system based on quality assurance will not crumble like a ponzie scheme, each layers in the quality system operates and gets checked independently, so if one layer fails it will not infect the layer above it or below it, it will be
    discovered, quarantined, and fixed without harming any of its surroundings.

  7. Very good post, Nas. Clear, calm, and well-reasoned. I’m glad to hear that you’ll be working on this one as I’m sure if anyone can get answers, it’s you…

  8. Jordan’s E-Newspapers fighting back Censorship by the state
    البيان لا يلوح باجراءات تصعيدية وانما يلمح لتعاون وشيك وانصياع لمطالب الحكومة بغطاء (شرعي) من المواقع الالكترونية الموقعة على البيان.

    عزيزي القارىء من السهل معرفة ما يجري بالخفاء عنك اذا ما تتبعت طبيعة المواقع الموقعة على البيان و المواد التي تنشرها و من هم القائمين عليها اصلا .

    فهل من كل عقلك تصدق بأن فلان او علان من الموقعين سيقف بوجه الحكومة ؟!! انتبه جيدا عزيزي القارىء فأنت المستهدف الاول و الأخير. طالب بصحافة الكترونية حرة واحذر المؤامرات

  9. @zeid: i disagree. these guys seem to be coming together as a coalition, which is a good start in a country where it’s usually every man for himself. secondly, what you’re saying is that what’s written in the statement isn’t necessarily reflective of the “conspiracy” happening behind the scenes. what did you expect them to say other than what’s written? these are organizations who will have to lobby. do you think they do so by antagonizing the people they have to sit at the table with; the people who have all the power.

    it’s a step forward.

    i won’t speculate about anything happening behind the scenes as i can’t possibly know. but if you’re in the know, please share.

  10. I am going to quote part of the comment that was supposedly written by the King on this blog again:

    People must not be afraid to express their opinions without using aliases. We are a country of freedom, tolerance, diversity and openness, and everyone has the right to express their thoughts – no matter what they are – in an atmosphere of respect, so long as they are not personally offending others, attempting character assassination or undermining the nation’s interest.

    This is part of what you called a “vision for the web” Naseem. Please let me explain to you how I read it:

    1- Your blog post is about gaps, and sometimes these are temporal gaps that occur over the short period of a few seconds when one part of a sentence [or vision in this case] contradicts the next. The King said that “everyone has the right to express their thoughts no matter what they are …” Then in the next part of the sentence, he continued to say “so long as they are not …” so and so. So, what happened to “no matter what they are”? I mean we can’t have it both ways. We either say “express your thoughts no matter what they are” or we say “express your thoughts so long as they are not ….” I mean is this just a case of bad speech? And which one is it that our King wants? Again, it can’t be both. This is something that needs to be clarified at the highest level, not even from the government!!!

    2- Consider (as you’ve done before) the ambiguity even in this “vision” as demonstrated by the conditions set forth regarding when people actually have the right to express their thoughts (you know, as opposed to keeping them to themselves and acting upon them anyway under some disguise of conformity).

    You can’t “express thoughts” that are personally offending. Well, different people have different thresholds for taking something as a personal offense, and judging from the numerous occasions when ashtrays were lobbed across the parliament floor, journalists were dragged to courts for writing opinion pieces, or when murderers successfully received reduced sentences for killing their own siblings or children because they took personal offense to their honor from as simple an act as the victim talking to a stranger, I am tempted to say that we are a very sensitive bunch in Jordan, and I would not frame things so broadly when it comes to restricting speech!

    You also can’t express thoughts that are character assassinations. Again, this is ambiguous at worst, and at best unnecessary. Honestly, I think the proper response things that fall under this category should be to expose those who engage in it in the same open forum of debate. And this is the beauty of freedom of expression; it is that when one person puts a lot of spin on a story in a character assassination attempt, the other person can respond to them and expose them for what they are trying to do.

    3- Finally, and maybe even before considering the ambiguity in some of these conditions, we should even question the validity of some of them, as in restricting one’s right in what was labelled as “undermining the nation’s interest.” Who determines what is in the nation’s interest or not? I sure would like to think that we the people should be the ones to determine that, and we are individuals who might sometimes be the minority voice of reason when things are not going so well for our country, which is the time when our opinions are most desperately needed. So we should not accept any vision or law that talks about the “nation’s interest” because it is ultimately a matter of opinion, not policy!!

    You know, before reading this article, I was following the debate for a while, and I’ve been kind of just sitting and waiting to see how things will play out, hoping that there are enough reasonable people in higher places in this country to make this matter go away, but after reading your post and the comment that was left on this web site supposedly by HM the King, my hopes have been shaken, and I’m left with the realization that we might very well be in this alone with no support from either the government, judiciary, or even the throne!

    So the only question that remains in my mind is, who’s going to vote for their relative in the next election?

  11. @Alias, thoughts are seldom offensive themselves, and they rarely constitute a character assasination on their own. Thoughts are only offensive if expressed offensively, and the same applies to the latter. The whole idea of “anyone has the right to express their mind as long as __” doesn’t indicate that the thought in which their expressing must meet a certain criteria, but rather *ANY* thought you express can be expressed, as long as the *way* in which it is expressed meets a certain criteria. And this makes a difference.

  12. Eyas, thanks for your response. I see what you’re saying. I guess the word “they” in “so long as they are not …” referred to the word “anyone” not “thoughts” in “anyone can express their thoughts.” My bad for not correctly spotting this.

    Anyway, it really doesn’t change anything – this distinction between the criteria being placed on the way thoughts are expressed as opposed to the thoughts themselves.

    The main focus for me is the criteria and conditions set forth in the quote themselves. They are still ambiguous and in at least the last case unacceptable from a democratic POV. You can refer back to my previous comment in (2) and (3) to see what I mean, but just to repeat the most important point, I don’t see how it can be considered anything but an attempt to silence thoughts when talking about prohibiting people from “undermining the nation’s interest” by simply expressing their opinions.

  13. This website is now shut down for spreading anti-revolutionary and defeatist sentiments among citizens. And, before I forget, for agitating ethnic rivalry and threatening national cohesion.

  14. yes, and for attempting to sell evil peanuts infected with mad cow disease to unsuspecting, sexually ambiguous, women’s hair dressers!

  15. I think we should separate between two fields of discussion. The first is “regulating” the e-media and the second is “freedom of speech”. Regulation is important especially for e-news portals which are now operating in a commercial mode (posting online ads) without being registered as “institutions” that have tax numbers and subjected to national laws just like any other commercial activity. Currently checks and payments for online ads are for the benefit of individuals with no tax monitoring (income tax or sales tax). This is a vivid case of corruption.
    We have also to distinguish between professional freedom of expression and personal defamation. Let us consider this example
    http://www.ejjbed.com/show_section.php?news_id=9231&section_id=1

    If anyone believes this is legitimate example of freedom of expression thay may not continue reading this comment as we will be in complete disagreement. Such a lousy style of expression should not go by without being punished. The best way is a legal case against the writer and publisher of the news site but there should be an internal code of ethics that is adhered to by site publsihers and editors to prevent such defamation, and we all remember what we read during the anto Basem Awadallah campaign orchestrated by Mohammad Dhahabi. As a member of the media community in Jordan I say that some of those sites are not angels or genuine believers in freedom of speech. Some are a disgrace to the profession and ethics of media and should be stopped.
    Any attempt by the government will fail, but if the media community does not take action against violators things will get much worse.

  16. @Batir, I completely agree that some of the websites are not angels or genuine believers in freedom of speech, but I disagree when you say they should be stopped. I think they should be exposed for what they are so that their support is weakened.

    The article you cited is not an example of defamation. I’m sorry, but this is as obvious as the sun. One should be able to identify satire when one sees it. This “editorial” did not include either facts or opinions about Al-Sharif, and that’s precisely why the worst you could describe it with was a “lousy style.” That is not something that should be punished.

  17. Dear Batir,
    The tax issue is a non-issue for many reasons:
    1- Is the sites income that big? Even then, if the site is hosted abroad, are you going to tax any activity beyond Jordan’s borders? How about the tax incentives that are given to many industries, isn’t supporting freedom of speech a worthy “sector”?
    2- Lets say that the issue is one of taxation: compared to other businesses and individuals that are evading paying taxes,is it really worth it? Aren’t the owners of these sites well known? Don’t they file for taxes? Aren’t advertising rates well known..
    3- On the issue of defamation,racism, and unprofessionalism, how many people in Jordan take abdel hadi raji el majali seriously? As a matter of fact, isn’t he an employee of the government owned and run Alrai? The majority of People can separate Wheat from the chaff. To suggest that we need to be protected from others’ speech is insulting to say the least. The “defamed” person can resort to the law and file a case..The medium should be out of the equation. The medium must remain free.

    On a side note: can’t officials become transparent so that any defamation can be reputed with facts? I mean if all those in leadership position made their decisions transparent and held themselves accountable then there will be no defamation. If the public knows the sources of their wealth,if the public knows the logic behind their decisions, if the public knows how they spend our money….There will be no “defamation”..

Your Two Piasters: