Jordan’s free press record dims with website restrictions

Jordan’s press freedom climate, once a shining light in the Middle East, has quickly deteriorated as journalists grapple with last year’s government ban on nearly 300 news websites.

Press freedom groups are documenting a rise in self-censorship and an increase in criminal cases against journalists. Local online news editors and journalists are complaining of economic hardship and psychological pressure.

Although most of the banned news sites have since obtained the required government license, some have refused to apply and are still blocked–including the 7iber news site. Lina Ejeilat, co-founder and editor-in-chief of 7iber, told me that it “is plain absurd” to seek government permission for a site that’s operated for seven years and has been registered since 2009 with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Other editors initially resisted the requirement and kept their sites blocked on principle. Daoud Kuttab, founder of AmmanNet and a recipient of CPJ’s 1996 International Press Freedom Award, and Basil Okour, the founder and chief editor of Jo24, waited until Jordan made commitments to revisit the law as part of a United Nations agreement in October.

While the licensing process went smoothly for most sites and without financial fees, the online sites are required under the license to hire an editor from the government-approved journalists’ syndicate, and to archive all their materials for at least six months. They are also held liable for any content and unwanted comments left by readers.

Those seemingly small restrictions are having adverse consequences. Kuttab told me that the website ban has had a chilling effect on news sites that criticized the king and reported on the  political opposition’s protests. The prolonged detention of two Jaffra news site journalists–Nidal al-Faraaneh and Amjad Mu’ala–last fall “made it a double whammy,” Kuttab said.

The two journalists, jailed by a military court in September on “national security” charges because of a video post on their website, were released on bail on December 31. As a result of their jail terms, Jordan appeared on CPJ’s imprisoned census last year for the first time since King Abdullah II came to power in 1999.

A self-censorship index compiled by the Jordanian Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists jumped significantly in 2013, and the center’s survey of Jordanian journalists found that 21.3 percent believed that media freedom had retreated dramatically during the year, compared with 14 percent in 2012. Further, the center’s executive director, Nidal Mansour, told me the organization saw an increase in the number of journalists’ legal cases it supported last year.

Okour, the Jo24 editor, was summoned to court for insult charges, shortly after he applied for a license, because he ridiculed a government-allied member of parliament. The political figure had accused Okour and others of twisting the government’s arm by seeking foreign support to reverse the website ban. The case is still pending, according to Okour.

“We faced a lot of psychological pressure,” he told me. “Every time you wrote something you had to expect your professional career to end.”

The restrictions caused several prominent sites to use social media for promoting and sharing their work, since social media didn’t come under the government restrictions. Once it was banned, 7iber was able to reach 30,000 people on social media in a matter of seven hours to let them know how to circumvent the ban through mirror sites and Internet proxies, Ejeilat told me. 7iber had more than 127,000 followers on its Facebook group by mid-May.

However, mirror sites are slower to navigate and circumvention tools are not user-friendly, Kuttab said. Jo24 lost almost half the number of daily visitors and 90 percent of readers’ comments; remaining comments are mostly from anonymous users, according to Okour. In addition, social media traffic won’t replace lost revenue and website readership. “We basically lost our traffic to (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg,” Kuttab told me.

Journalists are seeking help from the international community to pressure the government to follow the path of industry self-regulation as a framework for the Jordanian press. In 2012, UNESCO worked with the Jordanian government to establish the United Nations Development Assistance Framework 2013-2017 for Jordan. Under this plan, the government agreed to support three components of media reforms: self-regulation, amendments to media regulations, and media professionalism.

But local journalists were disappointed that President Obama did not publicly criticize the country’s reform record when he visited Jordan last year or when King Abdullah visited Washington in February. Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief who visited Jordan shortly after the ban, further praised the King for his reform vision.

Jordanian journalists were also unsettled by a government move on World Press Freedom Day. It placed the government’s Department of Press and Publications under Amgad al-Kadi, head of the Audio and Visual Agency, a step that could enforce regulation of online news similar to that of traditional media.

So the government may need a little more push to act on its commitments made under two United Nations processes–the development assistance framework and a human rights monitoring mechanism called Universal Periodic Review. As well, the king has made public promises to reform and revisit Jordan’s Press and Publications Law.

The idea that a not-so-bad country can get away with not-so-bad restrictive measures is unsettling to Jordanian journalists. Okour and other editors called on the international community, including international human rights groups, to do what they can, even if the situation in Jordan is not as bad as its neighbors’. “Restriction is like freedom; an idea that grows and becomes a mindset,” Okour told me. “We need to stop this snowball before it is too late.”

(Reporting from Amman, Jordan)