Jordan

The Fake Liberalization Effects of Freedom of Speech In Jordan

Jordan has been described as one of the liberal countries in the Arab world in terms of free use of Internet and social media tools, since political conditions are relatively stable. However, this doesn't mean that Internet policy is very progressive and users are without challenges.  
 
During the last week, social media activists on Facebook and Twitter were engaged in public discussion about online freedom of expression that touches on the private lives of politicians, particularly former MP Ali Dalaeen who published a photo of newly appointed minister of communication, Mrs. Majd Shwiekeh in a party with her family.
 
The former MP described her in his official Facebook page as a deviant person because of her look. Nevertheless, some commentators argued that no one has the right to insult people's privacy and dignity in reference to the right of "freedom of speech". 
 
In June 2013, Jordanian authorities ordered the country's Internet service providers to block access to more than 200 websites, reports Al Bawaba. The decision was condemned by the International Press Institute (IPI), which urged the government to safeguard the public's free access to information. IPI's deputy director, Anthony Mills, said the blockages and restrictions on social media "are an enormous blow to freedom of expression."
 
Websites like Aljazeera, Time and Amman.net were blocked. State authorities claimed that they represented a threat to national security and they didn’t comply with the press and publications law because the law requires all news websites to be legally registered. This was a huge violation of and backwards step for online human rights.
 
In September 2013, the Parliament endorsed in its extraordinary session new legislation that requires online media to register and obtain licenses from the Press and Publications Department. The new bill also holds online media outlets’ publishers responsible for any user-generated comments posted by readers in response to the articles.
 
This press law opens the door for government to enforce rules randomly and arbitrarily. This randomness is intentional and creates a chilling effect and self-censorship that is more effective than any government censorship.
 
Earlier in February 2015, Jordan's information minister, Mohammad Al-Momani, said in a conference that freedom of expression can contribute to stopping radicalization. On the very same day, a military court in the capital Amman sentenced a man to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post that was seen as insulting to a friendly country, the United Arab Emirates.
 
His statement was seen under the Jordanian laws as insulting another country. What he said was considered ‘bad-mouthing another country,’ which could have affected the well-being of almost a quarter of a million Jordanians working in the United Arab Emirates.
 
Offline, 7iber.org used to be blocked inside Jordan, when the media commission issued an order to communications companies to block 7iber.org. Its online activists have moved their domain name to 7iber.net to challenge the ‘licensing policy’ of the state and to explore different available options to guarantee their role in press freedom, as well as speaking truth to power to push the boundaries for a critical public debate. 
 
7iber was unsuccessful in challenging the ban in court. The case was dismissed, forcing the website to be licensed. The government censored the new 7iber.org website. It took them a whole year to do it, during this year 7iber has published many supportive arguments, reports and achieved workshops concerning internet governance affairs and monitoring media performance through a project called Gherbal.
 
How could it be that we live in a digital age of self-publishing and social media, where citizen journalists have to get government permission to publish online? Does it make sense that in order to publish, a writer needs to get that permission?
 
In 2015, there has been a new civil society youth initiative to combat online hate speech in Jordan. This project, called Youth to Combat Online Hate Speech in Jordan, is designed and implemented by I-Dare for Sustainable Development, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through a grant from the USAID Civic Initiatives Support Program implemented by FHI 360 in partnership with All Youth Jordan Commission (AJYC).
 
The project’s goal is to raise awareness of ‘online hate speech’ among youth in Jordan and to build a network of online youth activists who will combat online hate speech in the future.The call for applications is open for Jordanian youth between 20 – 35 years old who are activists, artists, bloggers, youth workers, team leaders, curators or any others who are interested in the topic of this call. 
 
This initiative represents a new hope to reinvent the will among the younger generation of Internet users. Candidates must demonstrate commitment after the training course by running an online campaign for 4 months. They must also demonstrate a profound commitment to other tasks required during this online freedom of expression online training course.
 
My recommendation is a strategic Public Private Partnership between government and civil society organizations to collaborate in taking real steps towards Internet governance policies, such as the following: 
 
  • Build a national platform of Internet governance to clarify the positive points of using the Internet and especially social media tools.
  • Achieve real legislative reforms like modifying laws and issue new progressive laws which meet international best practices.
  • Raise awareness concerning useful and helpful use of Internet and social media.
  • Avoid all kinds of insults due to the unclear understanding of the right of "freedom of expression".
  • Internet users should respect opposing opinions in their public discussions. 

The situation of the Internet in Jordan is characterized by ‘over-politicization’ and ‘lack of liberalization & good understanding’ of the Internet, which leads to a belief by online users that they are naturally contained, violated and massively threatened in their private lives, properties, as well as their online social relationships. Unaware consumers are easily targeted by the government and subjugated to state violence and human rights online abuses. 
 
 
Wael al-Khatib is a political anthropologist and Legal researcher based in Amman, Jordan.