October 5, 2012

Daoud Kuttab, a former professor of journalism at Princeton University, is director general of the Community media network in Jordan. It operates AmmanNet.net, the Arab world’s first Internet radio station.

At an international press-freedom event in Jordan 12 years ago, I was impressed with government officials’ words about the new king’s desire to promote the Internet as a means of free communication. I decided to set up an Internet radio station.

AmmanNet.net started as an electronic media experiment. It was created with support from the Open Society Institute and was sponsored in its first year by UNESCO and the city of Amman. Initially our online broadcasts were barely followed in Jordan. By collaborating with a Palestinian FM radio station, we were able to bypass government restrictions on radio broadcasts; the Palestinian station rebroadcast our signal into Jordanian air space, using our Internet Webcast. Since 2003, Jordan has allowed independent radio stations, but the Internet has continued to be a lifeline for freedom of expression.

In the past decade, online media have flourished in Jordan. More than 200 online newspapers, radio and TV sites have become part of the country’s vibrant discussion and debate. Of Jordan’s 7 million citizens, about 2 million use Facebook.

The Arabic-language e-mail company and Internet portal Maktoob, which had about 16 million users, was sold to Yahoo in 2009 for a reported $164 million. Online activity is so energetic that Princess Sumaya said in 2011 that 75 percent of all Arabic content on the Internet comes from Jordan, a boast that King Abdullah II made in August to U.S. journalist Charlie Rose.

This amazing progress, however, is threatened by a recent amendment to the Press and Publications Law.

Government officials told parliament that the unregulated proliferation of news Web sites and the anonymous comments posted on them have encouraged widespread character assassination.

Vicious attacks on officials and private citizens have become commonplace. Most such defamation is posted without proof or opportunity for those smeared to defend themselves. Further, officials and business leaders have said that some Web site owners have become experts at blackmail: Fabricated “news” has been known to quickly disappear if the accused agrees to buy ad space or otherwise pay.

While some excesses exist in online posts, media practitioners insist that incidents can be resolved by self-regulation.

The amendment — which King Abdullah signed into law last month — requires news Web sites to apply for and be granted licenses under the same restrictions that govern newspapers — or the government can obtain court orders to block their sites. The government has said it will not block social media and personal blogs, but under the law, it can stop foreign sites without consulting the courts.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about the amendment’s vague definition of which “electronic publications” would be affected, the new executive power to block Web sites and the unreasonable restrictions on online content, including making site owners responsible for comments posted by users.

Journalists, politicians and civil-society activists have rejected these muzzling attempts. Many have offered to register as a way to allow those wrongly attacked to sue. But they refuse to be licensed, which they argue gives the government power to decide who will be allowed to speak.

Web site owners have rebelled, declaring that they will refuse en masse to apply for the licenses. Jordan now requires newspaper and news Web sites’ chief editors to belong to the country’s restrictive (and mostly pro-government) press syndicate.

Because news Web sites and newspapers are equal under the law, content restrictions apply to both. Among them, newspapers are not allowed to criticize the heads of friendly countries or to write anything that can impinge on national unity or affect public trust in the national currency.

Jordanian media do not all speak freely. Two of Jordan’s leading newspapers are partially controlled by the government; some of the others are owned by businesspeople allied with the government. State-run radio and TV funded by citizen license fees are effectively mouthpieces of the government. Private radio and TV stations are pushing the envelope, but they operate under strict licensing regulations.

Jordan’s Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists says there were 16 cases of violations against media freedoms and journalists’ rights between May and August.

Activists say the government’s real aim is to stop Web sites from exposing corruption and official excesses. They note government’s heavy hand in stopping recent attempts by parliament to investigate corruption accusations against individuals close to the ruling powers.

The parliament that passed the restrictive law and took a pass on investigating corruption was dissolved Thursday by King Abdullah. Elections of a new legislature are to take place early next year, but opposition groups — which include Islamists and secular activists — have criticized changes to Jordan’s electoral law, which they say doesn’t institute real reform.

Controlling opinions is impossible in today’s connected world, but some governments are counting on the chilling effects of such laws. While Arabs, most of whom are 25 or younger, may be able to bypass blockades of Web sites, such restrictions signal that their government doesn’t trust them to decipher news. Worse yet is that governments want to go back to controlling the flow of information.