Regulation of Online Expression Undermines Reform Pledges
June 4, 2013
King Abdullah talked a good game about rights reform at the World Economic Forum just a few days ago, but didn’t wait for the dust to settle before moving to muzzle Jordanian news sites.The government is stuck in a hopeless time warp, trying to control online communications in the same ways it has tried to censor and control print media.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(Beirut) – Jordanian authorities should immediately rescind an order to censor 263 unlicensed local news websites. The government should also scrap recent legislation that allows it to encroach on online media freedom. The attempts to regulate online speech violate Jordan’s constitutional free expression guarantees.

A copy of the Press and Publications Department order, obtained and published by the local news website Amman Net, instructs the Jordanian Commission for the Regulation of the Communications Sector to block a list of websites for failing to register with the press department. A corresponding document from the communications commission published by Amman Net mandated the blocking of all 263 websites on June 2.

“King Abdullah talked a good game about rights reform at the World Economic Forum just a few days ago, but didn’t wait for the dust to settle before moving to muzzle Jordanian news sites,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government is stuck in a hopeless time warp, trying to control online communications in the same ways it has tried to censor and control print media.”

Amendments to the Press and Publications Law in late 2012 for the first time authorized the government to regulate “electronic publications,” requiring them to submit to the same regulatory structure imposed on print media. Article 49 of the amended law requires any “electronic publication that engages in publication of news, investigations, articles, or comments, which have to do with the internal or external affairs of the kingdom” to obtain registration and licensing from the Press and Publications Department.

Amman Net is the first site on the government’s list. But it also includes other well-known local news sites such as JO24.net, Jordan Days TV, and Soraya News, most of which allow users to post comments on news stories. Many news sites have refused to register, as a show of protest against what they see as intrusions into their independence and freedom.

Several of the websites included in the blocking order feature critical independent investigative reporting or citizen journalism. Many of the websites also allow individual users to discuss or comment on news items. Forcing these sites to register or risk being blocked will chill independent media and online debate about public affairs in Jordan, Human Rights Watch said.

Al-Ghad daily newspaper initially reported on June 2 that Fayez al-Shawabkeh, head of the Press and Publications Department, denied that he had ordered the websites blocked, but later in the day the paper updated its story to confirm that he issued the order.

Articles 48 and 49 of the amended law give the Press and Publications Department director the authority to block websites that are either unlicensed or deemed to be in violation of any law, and to close the website’s offices without providing a reason or obtaining a court order. The sites may challenge the decision in the Supreme Court of Justice, an administrative court.

Article 49 also makes the owner and editor-in-chief of an electronic publication liable for comments or posts that users put on their website. The websites are obliged “not [to] publish user comments containing information or facts unrelated to the news item or if their truth has not been checked,” or if they violate any laws.

On May 20, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour praised the role of the media and affirmed the importance of press freedom, saying that “the amendments to the press and publications law do not limit the scope of this freedom; the evidence for this is that the law has not restricted the practice of citizens who have websites.”

On June 2, Jordan’s official news agency quoted a statement by the press and publications department arguing: “[t]he blocking is not intended to restrict freedoms … but the goal of this action is to organize the work of these websites, protect them, and keep from allowing those from outside the profession to inhabit the label of journalists…”

“Despite authorities’ denials and obfuscations, the requirement that news websites submit to the same onerous regulations imposed on print media or face censorship is a clear attempt to restrict independent reporting in Jordan,” Whitson said.

A journalist at one of the news websites on the list told Human Rights Watch that a majority of the owners and editors of unlicensed news websites decided not to comply with the amended law or to register to preserve their journalistic independence and credibility. Others pointed to the onerous registration rules, one of which requires the editor-in-chief of any online news site to have been a member of the official Jordanian Journalists’ Syndicate for at least four years. The bylaws of the syndicate, however, restrict membership to workers in print publications. Human Rights Watch criticized the amendments prior to their adoption in October 2012.

Jordan’s Press and Publications Law, in articles 5, 7, and 38, and the penal code, in articles 122 and 188 to 200, among others, contain numerous content restrictions that are inconsistent with its obligation to uphold freedom of expression. These include criminalizing defamation, including against entities rather than people – such as government institutions, symbols, and religions.

Despite guarantees of free expression in article 15 of Jordan’s new constitution, Jordanian authorities are prosecuting media professionals and ordinary citizens for dubious criminal offenses related to speech. In April 2012, the State Security Court military prosecutor detained Jamal al-Muhtasib, editor of the Gerasa News website, for trying to “undermine the system of government” over an article that appeared on his website claiming irregularities in a corruption inquiry. The case remains open.

Judicial authorities have pursued a three-year prosecution against Mwafaq Mahadin, a journalist, and Sufyan al-Tell, an environmental activist, in response to their criticism of Jordan’s foreign policy on Satellite TV channels in 2010. Even though lowers courts have exonerated the men twice, prosecutors have kept the case alive through a series of appeals. It is currently before an appeals court.

The threatened closures also violate Jordan’s commitments under international law. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Jordan is a state party, guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” General Comment 34 by the Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, states that “[g]eneral state systems of registration or licensing of journalists are incompatible with” permissible restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.

In his May 2011 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, wrote that registration and licensing requirements “cannot be justified in the case of the Internet.”

“Jordan claims that it is simply regulating online journalism and upholding journalistic integrity, but in reality these amendments give authorities a tool to punish Jordanian journalists for what they write,” Whitson said.