For Talal

canvas

You haven’t written for months, a friend tells you recently. And as you stare at another blank page begging to be filled with words like a canvas needs paint, like a skyline needs a Sun – you realize there’s nothing you can write that someone hasn’t already thought about, hasn’t already written about, hasn’t already articulated in a voice unlike yours. In that moment, you are mindful of the enveloping noise and quietly come to believe that there is nothing you can write, nothing you can say that wouldn’t be adding to the cling and clatter; that wouldn’t be amplifying the dissonance. And you don’t know what you want, but you know you don’t want this. You don’t want to be just part of this noise. So that blank page remains unscathed; remains as menacing as ever. This, you realize, is another incarnation of writer’s block. Self imposed. Voluntarily assumed for the sake of retaining one’s own sanity. Your mind is a Buddhist monk self-exiled to a temple on a mountain, far from the world; seeking out peace and quiet far from that room full of wild elephants beating a dead horse. Over and over.

And then he’s born.

Your father names him Talal. It is a name fit for a king. Despite everything you’ve heard, read, or learned up until that moment – about that moment – it is only mildly life-changing. Fatherhood does not come on suddenly like violent weather. There’s no switch. It comes on gradually like a spark that’s kindled in to a flame that grows in to an inexplicable fire. And eventually, that fire begins to rage. And you realize, up until now, your life has been one selfish escapade. It is ok to admit this. Sure, ‘selfish’ is perhaps too “ugly” a word; too weighed down in negative connotations; too entrapped by notions of egocentricity in a world where people fancy themselves altruistic. But strip it down, strip it bare, and being “selfish” can really just mean focusing on the self. Because really, most of us spend our early years figuring ourselves out, figuring out our place in the chaos, putting our feet out in the world – and other clichés. The world expects this of you. Like Socrates standing outside the Temple of Delphi reading the words Gnothi Sauton inscribed at the gate – ‘know thyself’, it warns all who enter. And like Socrates, you step inside as a blank canvas. You are filled with questions, and you start this subconscious journey of finding answers that might not even exist. It’s a pursuit that should be an adventure but is muddied by convention. You get an education, you get a job, you get another, you find a career, you move from one place to another. You travel. You meet interesting people. You fall in love. You meet the person you know you’ll happily spend the rest of your life with. You do grown up things like pay bills; turn a house in to a home. Along the way, you forget what it means to ‘know thyself’, and you end up staring at a blank page begging to be filled – like a canvas needs paint.

And then he’s born. And then your father names him Talal. And weeks later, he reveals a toothless grin, and you begin to converse in sporadic laughter. Exchanging noise for noise, chuckle for chuckle. You spend hours staring at this miniature version of you, and slowly, you become aware of the fire. You become aware of the fact that this child is the new center in your life, orbiting around them like the Earth does to the Sun; unquestioningly. Unflinchingly. No longer a star floating out in dead space. Granted purpose instead. Drawn by their gravity.

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King Approves Press And Publication Law. Hello Internet Censorship.

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I cannot say I am surprised at the news of the royal seal approving amendments to the press and publications law. There was, deep down, a part of me who thought this wouldn’t happen and felt that this was perhaps another state policy that would get knocked down by the King after public pressure. But it seems that times have indeed changed and even the voice of reason has departed the political theater.

So, what’s next? The obvious question begs itself. Will this grease the wheels for an expected telecommunications law blocking certain “immoral” sites? Yes, this now seems more likely than ever given the approval of the press law – but I’ll continue to hope I’m wrong. Will this usher in a situation of widespread blanket censorship of the Internet? I personally do not think so, as most media laws in this country are designed to do two things: first, create an environment of fear that encourages self-censorship, and second, make use of the law when deemed necessary. In a country where self-censorship amongst journalists is typically over 90%, such a law will not only solidify this environment of fear, but allow it to now expand online. And as for the application of the law, it is the primary weapon used to keep people in check – anyone who is jailed, fined, or arrested will have essentially broken a law, the morality of which few will question, to say nothing of its constitutionality.

So, what’s the solution? The legal avenues seem to have closed, and what political will was available has now gone. What does remain is merely the ability for Jordanians who are online to continue to write, produce, publish, comment, discuss, analyze, report, and debate – vigorously.

Is this me asking Jordanians to break the law? Aside from the fact that that would be illegal, I would rather put it this way:

Once upon a time the public gatherings law was the biggest impediment to anyone looking to organize or partake in a demonstration, rally, protest or sit-in. For the longest time it was the legal weapon used by the state to control the political mobilization and gathering of citizens. And then the Arab Spring came around and a wave of unyielding protests hit Jordan in January 2011, causing the eventual resignation of a prime minister and fresh promises for reform. This happened because people no longer adhered to a particular law. It happened because, in my opinion, it was an immoral law whose value was eroded the moment people chose to ignore it.

So, no, I’m not asking anyone to break the law.

When The Jordanian Government Thought Internet Censorship Was a Bad Idea


Photo Courtesy of: Jordan Open Source Association

Once upon a time, the Jordanian government thought that censoring the Internet was actually a bad thing. In fact, the government felt that the best regulators of what content users should consume were the users themselves, in the form of the community – parents, schools, etc.

Government recognises the legitimate concerns of citizens relating to the potential for access, through use of Internet services, to material that is either illegal or inappropriate for the user of the service. Experience elsewhere has shown that it is impractical and undesirable that censorship of material be applied at a Governmental level. Government, however, requires that parents, schools, libraries and all others in intermediary or supervisory positions, and are thus best placed to understand the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of those whom they serve, be enabled to take all reasonable steps to ensure necessary protection. It is the intention of Government to provide guidance as to the techniques and measures that may be practically employed by those with responsibility for users, and, their appropriateness in relation to particular circumstances, and, to particular classifications of user.

- Statement of Government Policy on the Information & Communications Technology Sectors & Postal Sector. Ministry of Information & Communication Technology. Section 2.3. September 2003.

But, like all things, context is important. After all, the early 2000′s was quite a different time. The general direction of the state, under the encouragement of HM King Abdullah, was a focus on IT and telecommunications. From graduating high schools students being encouraged to major in the IT field with the promise of jobs, to the development of e-government services, to initial steps of opening up the media field. It was a time when the Jordanian state sought to “widen the scope of our participation in the knowledge economy from being mere isolated islands on the periphery of progress, to becoming an oasis of technology that can offer the prospect of economies of scale for those who venture to invest in our young, available talent.”

It’s a time that seems far off in to the horizon, making it even more easier to forget the political turmoil surrounding the Kingdom: be it the rise of the second intifada, the Jenin Massacre, the US-led invasion of Iraq, the subsequent Iraqi refugee crisis in Jordan, and the economic shock that came with it. And yet, despite all that, there seemed to be a vision of sorts when it came to the IT industry, when it came to freedoms of speech and expression, and when it came to media.

Where that general sense of direction has vanished I am no longer certain. What has happened since the early 2000′s that would encourage the Jordanian state to tread along this new path is unclear. And while we have heard arguments from the government that suggest the need to censor certain sites in order to protect the “social and moral fabric” of the nation, or complaining about the existence of irresponsible media outlets in this vast electronic space of expression – one needs to consider why, over the past 16 odd years of Internet existence in this country, have none of these concerns been of concern before? In short, the reasons are baffling, and in my personal opinion unconvincing, however – different people will feel differently about them. But that’s beside the point.

What has, however, become inherently clear over the past few weeks and months is that the recent moves to impose legal restrictions on the online world – be they amending the Press and Publications law or a possible banning of “inappropriate” material through a new Telecommunications law – is that such moves stand in stark contrast to what we’ve grown accustomed to, and the ballpark vision that has been semi-articulated by officials that include minister, prime ministers and the King himself.

But what is perhaps more frightening is that wherever you stand on this subject, one key fact is now apparent – there has been a drastic policy shift from the way the state sees the Internet. No longer is it a tool for innovation, entrepreneurship, media, free speech, discussion, or creativity – but rather an unregulated public arena with the ability to produce content and discussions the state believes to be threatening, or at least enough of a problem that it should inspire the government to act as the regulator of morality and speech.

Once upon a time we seemed to have a clue, but now I think the plot has been lost.

Protesting Internet Censorship Outside Parliament Today

Today, amendments to the Press and Publications law will be coming out of committee and on to the Lower House floor for a discussion and a probable vote. All signs point to these amendments passing, and for that we will be gathering tomorrow between 9:45am and 12pm outside parliament to mark the death of an era. Anyone interested can feel free to join. For those too lazy, you can sign a petition (global | local).

It will be sad to see this era end – one where Jordan stood out in the region as an oasis of free Internet. An era, once promoted by HM King Abdullah himself. An era that fueled discussion amongst Jordanians like never before, and helped contribute 14% of the economy.

So, to that era, we bid you a fond farewell.

You will be sorely missed.

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Wednesday Blackout: Jordan Moves To Censor The Internet, Again

This is a subject that, I admit, I have avoided writing about like the plague, and for good reason. After months of witnessing a group absurdly demanding the government actually move in to censor porn sites, and after months of a counter movement trying to convince people that self-regulation is the key and that any moves to censor pornography will undoubtedly give the government a mandate to apply blanket censorship on disagreeable content – after all this, we are finally, now, at the brink. It has come, not surprisingly, in the form of new amendments to the Press and Publications law that could usher in a new era for arbitrary censorship. If anyone reading this right now is experiencing deja vu, please note that we’ve seen this all before.

I should preface this post by a personal statement. In recent months I’ve grown increasingly cynical of the lack of progress in Jordan on nearly every front – political, economic, social and what have you – and for the sake of my sanity have attempted to shrink away from writing anything on this blog that would fuel this mental state I’m in. Since our Parliament voted on giving itself pay raises back in April, my cynicism has quickly shifted to a more dangerous state – apathy. It is perhaps disastrous for any citizen to be fairly convinced that very little progress will come about in Jordan, and this recent move by the sate to introduce typically ambiguous amendments to an arcane law that would dictate the last true arena of free speech is, simply put, the straw that broke this camel’s back.

Those arguing against moves to “block pornography” have listed numerous reasons why – in an effort to convince the state what I genuinely believe it lacks the mental capacity to comprehend. Such reasons include:

- The impact this will have on our IT sector.

- How this will make Jordan look to the global community.

- Self regulation tools are widely available and all a good parent has to do is call up their ISP to ask for parental control.

- The fact that censorship just doesn’t work. People who want to consume certain content will find ways to consume it, and they’ll drive that consumption underground.

And so on, and so forth.

Now I could write about any of the aforementioned. I could talk endlessly about the need for free speech and the impact it has on social cohesion and creating better informed citizens. I could talk about how foreign investments might be affected in the IT sector, or what impact this will have on the growing population of young Jordanians that are trying to find new and creative ways to create opportunities of entrepeneurship online. But none of it would matter, and none of it will change anyone’s mind. More importantly, I’m sick and tired of trying to convince my government to, simply put, do the right thing. I grow nauseous just at the thought that it’s the year 2012 and we have to actually convince the state that Internet censorship is a bad thing.

And at the end of the day, none of these reasons obviously click with the state. None of this matters to the state, given the amount of times they’ve made this attempt. What matters to the state is finding ways to prosecute citizens for what they say or publish online. No more and no less. We know this because we’ve seen it before. We know this because we’ve gone through this whole charade before. All that’s missing is the show closer, which is usually the King coming out and saying something about the sky being the limit when it comes to freedom of speech and a crowded room applauding for the time being.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Jordan is currently in a mentally unstable state of mind, and I really don’t know how many times we need to be hit over the head before we realize this is a zero sum game. Someone, somewhere, is convinced that Jordan’s online news sites need to be controlled, and that’s that. The state has spent the better part of half a decade trying to find ways to do it without coming off as the bad guy. They do this by introducing laws that offer a constitutional paradox. For, you see, our constitution clearly states that every citizen is guaranteed freedom of speech, but within the law. And so laws are created to ensure those freedoms remain limited. It’s like a teacher on the first day of school telling her students that the sky is the limit when it comes to free speech in her classroom, and the school’s philosophy guarantees that right – and here’s a list of all the things we don’t want you saying while you enjoy that freedom.

So, given the state’s track record when it comes to this specific issue, and given the way things usually go down in this country (especially lately), Internet censorship in Jordan is, in my opinion, inevitable. Whether it’s the amendments to this particular law, and the subsequent parliamentary vote on it this week, or whether it’s next month or next year – all the signs and evidence presented by the state time and time again points to an inevitability. Beware – this is not a cynical statement but a statement reflective of reality. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I think it’s high time we woke up and called it a duck. I think it’s high time we realize that this boils down to a political structure that is in place, consisting of the same recycled individuals with the same redundant thinking, and sooner or later, just like a former Prime Minister, the same policy comes back again to hit us on the head. And then, of course, the government will chime in with a chorus of “but this time it’s different; we promise!”

Now I don’t know about you, but frankly, I’m sick and tired of seeing this insanity flourish. Of going through this over and over again, and expecting that maybe, somewhere, there’s a glimmer of hope; a different result. I honestly do not see this happening in Jordan, be it with regards to Internet freedom or political reform or anything of that sort. Until one sees massive upheaval of the state and not just the typical window dressing moves of changing the people at the top, then we are going no where.

I am angry, and I am thirsty for hope. I am thirsty for leadership. I am thirsty for a vision, and thirsty for a change I do not see coming because the political will is either absent, apathetic, or careless. After all is said and done, after all the arguments have been made, I am simply angry – and you should be too. Over the years, my trust in the state has deteriorated to the point of non existence. And a state that has genuinely demonstrated its dedication to finding ways to regulate the last inch of real estate where freedom of speech and expression exist – is a state that is unworthy of my (or your) trust. It is a state that works against my interests. There is just no other way to put it.

So, this blog will be participating in an online blackout this Wednesday, August 29th (for more info: click). It is a collective effort to digitally protest the government’s censorship efforts, while giving users a taste of what the Internet might look like down the line.

And if the law is passed then the blackout, at least for this little blog, will be prolonged.

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What You Can Do If You’re A…

- Jordanian website owner or blogger…join the blackout

- Facebook and Twitter users…add a twibbon to show support.

- Twitter: tweet, retweet and follow the hashtags of #BlackOutJO and #FreeNetJO (follow: http://twitter.com/7oryanet for updates)

- Facebook: join/like the “I Know How To Protect Myself” page.

- Creatives: check out the advocacy content in this album and contribute your own ‘blocked website” flash page.