Naseem Tarawneh writes for Foreign Policy:
In a region home to governments with a long history of Internet censorship, Jordan has long stood out as a model of relative freedom. Since its arrival in the kingdom in the mid 1990s, free and open access to the World Wide Web has not only been maintained but indeed championed by King Abdullah II, since he came into power in 1999. An unfiltered Internet has been largely credited for cultivating a burgeoning IT sector that has come to represent roughly 14 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), as well as a new wave of youth-driven, Internet-based entrepreneurship in a country where unemployment ranges between 13 percent (official) and 30 percent (unofficial).
With such context in mind, many Jordanians were surprised at the government's announcement this August that it would be amending the country's notorious Press and Publications law to include articles that would seek to restrict Internet freedoms. The draft legislation includes articles that would hold online media accountable for any comments left by their readers, and would prohibit them from publishing any comments deemed irrelevant to the published article. Moreover, online media organizations would also be required to archive all comments left on their sites for at least six months.
However, the most troublesome amendment essentially requires online media to register with and obtain a license from the Press and Publications Department, paying a fee of roughly $1,400 (lowered from an initially proposed $14,000), and giving the government the ability to block sites failing to comply. Bringing online news sites in to the folds of the Press and Publications law would therefore require them to be mandatory members of the Jordan Press Association, and undergo the same regulations governing print publications, including appointing an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the association for a minimum of four years.
Without a doubt, the proposed articles have been specifically designed to target the country's growing pool of online news sites that have risen to well over 100 in recent years. Since their emergence in the late 2000s, Jordanian news sites like Sarayanews, Ammon News, and Khaberni have managed to amass a following amongst the country's two million Internet usersthat surpasses in ranking even the largest mainstream print newspapers, Al Rai and Ad Dustour. However, such sites have proven to be a pesky presence for the state, which has, through successive governments, made several attempts to regulate their growth, and more importantly, their content.
In mid 2010, the Samir Rifai government blocked access to roughly 50 news sites throughout government buildings, under the pretext of a 30-day study claiming public sector workers were wasting three hours a day surfing websites unreleated to their work. The ban coincided with the introduction of a draft Cyber Crimes law that included articles imposing fines on organizations or individuals who disseminated information deemed to be "slanderous or defamatory," and gave authorities the power to raid offices of news websites and confiscate computers with a court order. After eight months of deliberation, the law was passed without the controversial amendments at the last minute, while the order to block news sites in government buildings was reversed several months later during Marouf Bakhit's government and the advent of the Arab Spring. The 2010 Cyber Crimes law emerged in draft form days after Jordan's Supreme Court had made a controversial ruling that categorized local news sites as publications and therefore subject to the troublesome legal framework of the Press and Publications law.
Successive governments have consistently accused Jordanian news sites of practicing irresponsible journalism, publishing slanderous articles, and partaking in character assassinations as well as blackmail. However, for the average Jordanian Internet user, such sites represent a vital resource of fairly unfiltered, local breaking news, as well as a platform for discussion, which may help explain the antagonistic relationship between the state and the budding, unregulated sector.
Yet, what would push Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh's government (which has recently passed its 100-day mark and faces upcoming parliamentary elections) to initiate such a controversial legislative move now?