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.