Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 January 2010
Issue No. 982
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Clamping down online

Oula Farawati looks at the ramifications of a recent court ruling on the media in Jordan

Media in Jordan is under threat again, now from Jordan's supreme authority, the courts. After enjoying some relative freedoms over the past few years, Jordan's news websites, blogs and maybe tweets are being threatened by government sanctions.

The Court of Cassation just ruled that news websites fall under the jurisdiction of the press and publication law, a repressive, elastic law that is widely believed to have curbed press freedoms in Jordan.

The news sent waves of fear amongst Jordan's bloggers, cyber writers and media freedom supporters. They all agree that this will further smother the media and free speech in the kingdom.

The government, on the other hand, is happy with the court ruling, which came as a result of a former editor, Ahmed Salameh, suing another editor, Samir Hiyari of Ammon News website.

Government Spokesman Nabil Sharif, former chief editor of Addustour Daily, said that the court ruling is in fact "in everyone's interest and will serve professionalism and the legal dimension of the work of journalists." He told Al-Ghad Daily.

But media circles are wary of the government's imminent move to "regulate" news websites. Rumours are rife that the government was actually putting together a new "cyber law" in order to govern the "online written word".

Media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières is wary of "self-censorship", a practice instilled in "traditional media" by consecutive government laws and practices. It said in a media release that, "the ruling poses a real threat to online free expression in Jordan, where traditional media usually toes the government line. With the authorities determined to rein in online news and information, there is a danger that Internet users will follow the example set by print media journalists and censor themselves out of fear of sanctions."

Jordan's press and publications law has a foul reputation. It has been amended seven times since it was enacted in 1993; all the consecutive versions were more stifling than the last to media liberties. Respected writer Osama Al-Sherif wrote recently that, "any regulation whose aim is to harness such sites will probably do more harm than good." He argued that instead of muzzling electronic websites, the government had to find ways to free traditional ones, and face up to the bigger task of having journalists and media practitioners answer to one law.

Jordan's media is already suffocating with the domination of some 20 pieces of legislation, the most dangerous of them being the penal code and the state security court law. For journalist and blogger Mohamed Ersan, the news of more asphyxiating laws is disturbing: "As a journalist and blogger I will now think a hundred times before I write something that can potentially get me in trouble."

Ghaith Adaileh, chief editor of Khaberni.com, a progressive news website, is also anxious since the law will harm the "respected news websites" that abide by the cherished code of media ethics. He told jordandays.tv that, "the government cannot control the cyber world. How can the government control Google in Jordan?" Adaileh contends that the government is only interested in crippling news websites that have been active in exposing the "malpractices" of some government officials.

"Keep the online world in Jordan and the Arab world free" is the message entrepreneur Samih Toukan, co-founder of Maktoob.com, is sending to the authorities. Now the CEO of Jabbar.com, Toukan said Jordan's free websphere is one of the reasons that attracts big names like Yahoo! and one of the reasons that made the acquisition of Maktoob.com a reality Jordan is proud of.

"We definitely need a cyber crimes law to prevent hacking and spamming, for example, but we definitely don't want anything that would stifle freedoms and degrade Jordan's freedoms reputation," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

One of Jordan's top bloggers, Ahmed Humeid (360east.com), recognises that there are some violations: "After 15 years of liberal Internet policy in Jordan, it would be shameful to sacrifice it because of a bunch of rumours and false news spreaders. Let's make no mistake; there are people out there who are using the net to defame people and make unjust accusations against them, and not just government officials but sometimes normal citizens. The level of conversation on some sites is extremely low and insulting," he wrote on his blog. "Still this is no reason to put forward legislation that will make online expression risky for those who want to use the web medium to push society and the country forward."

In face of all this pre-emptive lobbying that has worried respected media, the government needs to act responsibly. Putting limitations on Jordan's virtual world will be the government's first cyber crime.

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