“More and more states are enacting or considering repressive laws pertaining to the Web, or are applying those that already exist, which is the case with Jordan” – Reporters Without Borders, Internet Enemies Report, March 12th 2010
While Jordan didn’t make this year’s Internet Enemies list, to join the likes of fellow Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia – it is undoubtedly on the path towards this notorious list. Jordan has never been known for its free speech, only its “relative” free speech, or, in other words, its ability to remain “less worse” than neighboring nations who have more extreme speech conditions. This doesn’t make Jordan good or great, simply better than the disparaging context that surrounds it, which isn’t saying much at all.
As everyone in the Kingdom knows by now, 2010 started out only several weeks ago with the government seemingly on the march towards Internet censorship – or as they like to call it, “regulation”. While a supreme court case set a precedent, behind the scenes there seemed to be movement to enact a “Cyber Law” that would reign down a flurry of regulation of free speech online. As I wrote back in January, such moves are classic attempts by the Jordanian governments to implement policies that directly contradict His Majesty King Abdullah’s proclaimed vision for the country. This is not uncommon practice in the Kingdom, but it is nevertheless a case of citizen’s receiving guarantees on one hand and broken promises on the other.
However, in recent weeks, it has become abundantly clear the government’s problem with the Internet is the surge of electronic newspapers that have emerged in recent times. In some cases, many of these electronic newspapers have tread into scandalous territory, be it in hopes of generating sensationalism and thus traffic, or settling scores using a free medium, or guaranteeing advertising revenue. For the latter, those working in the traditional media sector have commonly attempted to point out how some of these electronic newspapers have sought to secure advertising on their site by blackmailing people, companies and organizations, with threats of launching online campaigns against them. In that vein, some of the content that has emerged on some of these sites is typically tabloidish, even going so far as to call people crooks (with no provided evidence), or even making haphazard claims about their character and their families.
The government is in a bind. If it regulates and enacts cyber laws it will be perceived by the international community and by human rights organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, as being oppressive. And while such prospects regarding human rights has never stopped the government in the past, relative free speech and expression may be one of the last things going for it at this point in time, and the government cannot afford to look increasingly oppressive in a delicate investor climate. On the other hand, there is the sense that something needs to be done to stop what is being said online.
Thus the first Pavlovian instinct of the Jordanian government: enact laws. Regulate. Censor. Prohibit. Threaten.
It is a gray line and the government is probably aware by now that it cannot have it both ways. It must choose a path.
However, one has to wonder, are there not already laws that one can utilize if they are slandered online? Can these laws not be used by ordinary citizens as needed? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding yes. This is a country where if someone says something about you, you have the legal right to pursue them, even if they said it online. So why enact laws that regulate all free speech, in order to ensure the prosecution of some irresponsible speech. Moreover, why risk legal ambiguity, as witnessed in that court ruling earlier this year, in the last remaining real estate of freedom in Jordan?
Simply utilize the laws already in existence, which protect the rights of all citizens against defamation. The only sticky point here is that government officials should not be allowed to sue electronic media or any other form of media while in a position of political power. Stepping down from that position and pursuing the law as ordinary citizens is one thing – doing it from a political pulpit in a country where the separation between the executive and judicial branch are questionable at best, is simply wrong.
Moreover, the government’s progressive instinct when it comes to a so-called Cyber Law, should theoretically be to have a law that protect intellectual property online or protects people and organizations from spam or identity theft – not enacting a law to prosecute people for what they say online.
Lastly, when it comes to electronic newspapers or any other newspaper or media publication for that matter – free speech is meant to guarantee the freedom of all. Protecting the right for a tabloid magazine to say whatever it wants to say is the only way to ensure that “legitimate” publications have the right to whatever they want to say. Tabloids and scandalous material will always have its audience, be it in Jordan or elsewhere, and there isn’t anyone on the ideological spectrum that doesn’t roll their eyes at them. But the economic argument is that people tend to utilize their right to choose. The forces of the free market determine what is deemed credible and legitimate and what is not. In the overwhelming majority of cases worldwide, “legitimate” media always gets the share of credibility from the readers, i.e. the consumers. Those lacking credibility tend to slowly face their own demise due to lower demand and thus lower sales.
The government responding to these publications with censorship only lends them legitimacy and credibility, and there is no entity that offers a surge of credibility in Jordan than its own government. We’ve seen this in the political sphere as well as the media arena.
So on today of all days, I hope these words can inspire some good sense in decision-makers, and hopefully Jordan can continue to remain off that Internet Enemies list.