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Choked Media Struggles to Speak Out in Jordan

AMMAN, Aug 8 2013 (IPS) - Journalists and media activists have begun to confront the Jordanian government over its moves to block local news websites. Two months now after the blockage, many of these sites are struggling.

In two waves, at the beginning of June and again in early July, Jordan’s Department of Press and Publications blocked nearly 300 websites for violating its press law. The government alleged the sites had failed to secure licenses required under the controversial amendments to the law in September last year.

The blocking has sparked an outcry among journalists, activists, and human rights organisations that Jordan is curbing the press and freedom of expression.

Five of the blocked websites – AmmanNet, JO24, Ain News, Khabar Jo, and All of Jo – filed a lawsuit against the government Jul. 25 challenging the constitutionality of the amended press law as well as the legality of the procedure by which the ban was imposed.

"It's clear that the government was very disturbed by the way these websites have provided a space to talk about corruption." -- 7iber editor-in-chief Lina Ejeilat

Article 49 of the amended law gives the head of the Press and Publications Department the right to block and close unlicensed websites if they do anything illegal, Mohammad Qatishat, the lawyer representing the websites, tells IPS.

Article 15 of the Jordanian constitution states that “newspapers and information media may not be suspended nor the license thereof revoked except by a judicial order in accordance with the provisions of the law.” Article 49 is therefore unconstitutional, Qatishat said.

The head of the Press and Publications Department, Fayez Shawabkeh, tells IPS that the constitution referred “mainly to licensed media” and therefore did not apply to the unlicensed websites he blocked.

Others have brought separate cases against the government and against Internet service providers (ISPs). The popular site 7iber has filed a lawsuit on the basis that it is a blog, not a news website, and should not be subject to the ban. The publisher of JO24, Basil Okoor, is suing ISPs and the government for damages.

As websites wait for these lawsuits to proceed, they are using other creative ways to fight back – developing mirror sites, handing out instructions to get around the ban, publishing news via Facebook or other social media, and holding public protests and debates on the law.

7iber has published material on its mirror site and on Facebook teaching people how to bypass the block, and distributed instructional flyers at local debates “not just for 7iber but for any site,” says 7iber editor-in-chief Lina Ejeilat.

Still, protesting can only go so far before reality sets in. Alaa Fazaa, publisher of Khabar Jo, tells IPS that the ban has gradually been choking his website. A few weeks ago, “two companies told me that they would stop advertising on our website because it’s blocked.

“At this time I have no financial resources. I cannot pay salaries to my employees,” he adds, the strain of recent weeks apparent in his worried expression. “We cannot continue publishing the news the way we did before.”

Fazaa has set up a mirror site, but “not so many people are interested in following you on mirrors.”

Over the past decade, electronic media and news sites have blossomed in Jordan, providing new platforms for reporting and for public discussion. Some see this development as worrying for the government, particularly since the start of the Arab Spring two years ago.

“It’s not just happening now,” Fazaa says. The context began over four years ago, he says. Ejeilat said a “new political atmosphere” had begun with the Arab Spring when people were “much more outspoken about corruption and against public figures.

“It’s clear that the government was very disturbed by the way these websites have provided a space to talk about corruption,” Ejeilat says, even though “this online sphere played an important role in pushing the government to prosecute some of these [corruption] cases.”

Some of the websites were carrying out “independent news reporting in Jordan” and “producing content that could be investigative and hard-hitting” and therefore “beneficial to Jordanian society,” says Adam Coogle, researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The government claims it is trying to protect people from blackmail and character assassination. But forcing sites to register or banning them is not the proper way to do so, experts say.

“If such activities are going on, the authorities have ample ability to investigate and prosecute them,” says Coogle. “Forcing the websites to register in the first place is a violation of Jordan’s obligations under freedom of expression.”

According to General Comment 34 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Jordan is party, “general State systems of registration…are incompatible with” freedom of expression.

Daoud Kuttab, general manager of AmmanNet, is among many who believe the government’s real goal is to create a “chilling effect”. “Their aim is to control and maybe intimidate people into [covering] what they think the media should cover and how they should be working.”

According to Shawabkeh, “bankers, owners of big companies, investors” felt threatened by slander and blackmail. The law was also meant to protect ordinary Jordanians, he added later.

“It’s about the protection of the elite,” says Fazaa. “They do not want us to write about the elite – the political elite, business elite and so on.” The government, he said, is afraid of these websites.

“The websites are independent. They give the real picture. They give information about things that government does not people to know.”

 
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