The date is still vividly engraved in my memory – Nov. 15, 2000. The head of the UNESCO office in Amman, Martin Hadlow, joined me to launch the Arab world’s first internet radio station, AmmanNet.
This happy day, however, has now been tainted by a sad one. On Sunday. June 3, 2013, the Jordanian government ordered local internet service providers to block our site along with 212 other news websites. The reason? Because we refuse to apply for a license to run a news site.
A lot has happened in the thirteen years since that day in 2000, which took place only because of the ascension to the throne of King Abdullah. Upon taking power, the heir of King Hussein had vowed to make Jordan a free-internet country, along with a promise to journalists that the sky was the limit for press freedom.
Since then, 75 per cent of the Arabic content on the Web has come from Jordan. Our website has been a leader in investigative journalism, exposing abuse in handicap centers, monitoring the performance of the parliament and revealing cases of corruption among the powerful in Jordan.
What happened in the intervening years? What caused Freedom House to rank Jordan a “not free” country in 2012, and the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour to block websites?
The aspirations of the King – which have translated into a promise to privatize the airwaves (we received a radio station license in 2005) – have done little to move the bar on the crucial issue of democracy: a free press.
Jordan still owns and controls the country’s main national radio and TV stations, owns 65 per cent of the biggest-selling daily newspaper Al Rai and 35 per cent of another leading newspaper, Ad Dustour. A 2007 access to information law (the first in the Arab world) has proved useless, as public and semi-public governmental agencies have ignored FOI requests based on this toothless law.
But while the traditional media have remained stuck to protocol (the King still is the lead story on TV and in the government-owned papers), the desire for information, debate and discussion in this well-educated country has not.
After our site succeeded in getting independent news and commentary out, every community, group, political movement or frustrated journalist decided to set up a website. Without any restrictions, and in a nation with more than a million Facebook users, news and commentary on the Internet attracted the country’s young population, which counts 75 per cent of its citizens under the age 30 – and almost all educated and Web savvy.
Along with serious and professional news websites, a number of entrepreneurs of this newfound freedom were not serious or professional. In fact, some owners of websites made their money by blackmailing individuals, companies or public figures with totally unsubstantiated accusations. When these groups or individuals complained, the site owners offered to make these stories disappear in return for cash or for a paid advertisement. The situation escalated during the Arab Spring uprisings, with some owners of these sites accusing innocent people and public figures of corruption.
To deal with what the King called acts of “character assassination,” the Jordanian government passed (or rather railroaded) a controversial amendment to the Press and Publications Law ordering any website that deals with news and commentary to be licensed by a government agency. To be licensed the owners had to hire a member of the closed-shop Press Council, whose membership excludes any electronic-media journalists.
The law held owners and editors responsible for all content on the websites, including commentary. Owners of websites, including us, refused to apply for these licenses and declared an electronic civil disobedience. When MP Abdullah Esnour, who voted against this law, became prime minister, website owners breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. Ensour didn’t carry out any actions against unlicensed websites and when he addressed the International Press Institute congress in Amman in May, he promised to discuss with website owners a wayto resolve this conflict – only to close down these sites without warning a few days later.
Yuen-Ying Chan, the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, spoke at the same IPI conference and said that even China, which thought of applying the same licensing protocol for news websites, backed away from the idea because of concern that it would not work. It won’t in Jordan.
The rationale behind the blocking of so many websites is unclear, except perhaps the idea that such restrictions would force news-site owners to do the dirty work of self-censorship. If that was the case, then the websites have a surprise for their own government – owners of news sites have already found ways around this recent closure.
Facebook, which is not included in the blockade, is now even richer with news from hundreds of blocked websites. And for many websites that were barely known outside a small circle, the newfound attention will bring more audience to their journalism.
It is not clear whether this will bring professionalism any closer in Jordan. But the dreams and aspirations of an independent and vibrant media in Jordan have certainly been hurt by this undemocratic act.
Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor at Princeton University, is a regular columnist with almonitor.com.