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New censors of Web media

by Daoud Kuttab

The Internet has proved to be a powerful tool for overcoming media restrictions and censorship worldwide. But new restrictions on Web-based news media, such as those in Jordan, threaten to reverse the progress that the Internet has enabled.

For example, the tendency of Arab countries’ media to discuss issues concerning other countries more freely than those affecting their own has long impeded citizens’ ability to keep abreast of domestic affairs. Amin.org — the Arab world’s first censorship-free website, which I established in 1996 — addressed the problem by giving people access to information and commentary from foreign publications about domestic issues and events.

Four years later, at a time when Jordanians could access primarily government-owned radio stations, plus a few foreign stations, I launched AmmamNet.net, an Internet radio station that broadcast news and commentary from Jordan to the rest of the world. While Jordan later loosened official restrictions on audio-visual media, AmmanNet continued to deliver high-quality independent news and commentary.

But under orders from senior government officials, the Jordanian Press and Publications Department recently blocked nearly 300 news websites. The decision was based on a controversial law that, among other things, requires any website publishing news and commentary about Jordan to appoint an editor from the closed journalists’ union, which electronic-media journalists cannot join, and to be licensed by a government body.

At first glance, this may not seem problematic. After all, Jordan has a population of only 6.5 million, so having hundreds of news websites could be viewed as excessive. And it is not unreasonable to require news publishers to be licensed.

But Jordan’s media environment is dominated by state-owned newspapers and national radio and television stations that act as government mouthpieces. While a few private newspapers exist, their owners largely cooperate — if not collude — with the government. As a result, there is significant demand among Jordan’s young, educated population (two out of five Jordanians have already joined Facebook) for independent news reporting.

There is plenty of inaccurate and disreputable reporting on the Internet. Indeed, the lack of restrictions has enabled dubious journalistic practices to flourish. Jordan’s diverse tribal composition was reflected in newly established websites, some of which were created with tacit support — and even funding — from security agencies or other official or political groups.

Moreover, many people launched news websites exclusively for financial gain. Taking advantage of the implicit authority of news media, they published any potentially damaging rumor about individuals or groups with means and influence, then offered to remove the story in exchange for a paid advertisement or a direct cash payment.

In response to such extortionary practices, King Abdullah II decried “character assassination” by online news media and demanded that the government establish a regulatory framework for this unruly new sector. The committee that he tasked with determining the best approach recommended training and organizing electronic journalists; creating a council to address grievances; and establishing an official but voluntary registry of website owners, where anyone seeking to lodge a complaint — or initiate a lawsuit — could find out whom to address.

But Jordan’s senior leadership rejected the committee’s recommendations, which they viewed as excessively reliant on self-regulation. Instead, last September, they railroaded through Parliament an amendment to the Press and Publications Law. Beyond the licensing and hiring requirements, the amendment holds Web-site owners and editors personally responsible for all content, including readers’ comments.

Following a general election in January, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, who had voted against the law as a member of Parliament, assured angry website owners and online journalists that he would work with them to find a solution based on good will. He offered similar assurances to the International Press Institute (IPI) at its congress in Amman in May, declaring the government’s commitment to applying the law in a way that will not undermine the journalistic profession in Jordan.

But, on the morning of June 2, a virtual massacre occurred, as local Internet service providers were ordered to block Jordanians’ access to hundreds of news websites, including AmmanNet. Although major sites like Yahoo, Google, Al Bawaba, and Facebook publish news about Jordan — and thus technically fall under the licensing scheme — they were not included. International media groups — such as the IPI, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19, the U.S.-based National Press Club, and Human Rights Watch — have demanded that Jordan rescind the order and revise the law.

Such censorship carries implications beyond blocking citizens’ access to independent domestic news reporting. It has broken an unwritten agreement that has upheld the Internet’s role as a space for global information-sharing and free discussion.

In order to circumvent the growing restrictions, Jordanians are now flocking to proxy programs and applications. Although information is still widely available on Facebook and other international sites, public trust in the government has been seriously eroded. Regaining it appears certain to be a long and difficult process.

If the Internet is no longer a space for freedom of expression, the public will look for other platforms that can guarantee it — a yearning for openness that has been the hallmark of the Arab Spring.

Daoud Kuttab, a columnist with Almonitor.com, is a former professor of journalism at Princeton University. © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)