HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH The Internet In The Mideast And North Africa: Free Expression and Censorship
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Internet use has grown rapidly in Jordan, with the government extolling its virtues and imposing few restrictions. Authorities have been more tolerant toward news and comment online than toward traditional print and broadcast news media, with the result that Jordanians can obtain information from the Internet that is either taboo or ignored in the local print press.

Individuals, corporations, and organizations can establish Internet accounts easily. No form of government approval or registration is required to open an account or set up a web site. However, high phone and Internet access costs, including taxes and fees collected from ISPs, have kept the number of users--estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000--lower than it might otherwise be. In early 1999, a monthly account for a moderate user cost the equivalent of U.S. $70, including phone charges. Although there are six private ISPs, all must get their lines from the state telecommunications company and are captive to its relatively high pricing policies.

According to the government, "There is no blocking or censoring by the government of the content of any web sites or of electronic communications via newsgroups, e-mail or other Internet forums."(83)  Human Rights Watch has heard no reports that contradict this assertion.

Privately run Internet cafés have proliferated in Amman and sprouted up in other cities.(84) The government states, "There are no special laws relating to their operation other than the standard licenses they have to obtain as any other business."(85) We are not aware of any form of government effort to restrict or monitor use of the Internet at cybercafés.

The Jordanian public has been able to obtain Internet access locally since 1996. The local providers offer national online newsgroups (electronic bulletin boards) and chat rooms.(86) In these forums, Jordanians have been able to converse about topics that the local press has covered gingerly if at all, such as the views and imprisonment of outspoken political dissident Leith Shbeilat (who himself has participated in online discussions), "honor" killings, Jordan's controversial peace treaty and relations with Israel, and armed attacks on Israeli targets.

Various government ministries have web sites and e-mail addresses, including the General Intelligence Department (<>). At least one Internet service provider, NETS, invites subscribers to post comments and questions to participating government officials in an "Ask the Government" folder.

Jordanians have been able to go online to circumvent occasional prohibitions of foreign newspapers. On May 19, 1998, authorities banned the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi indefinitely from importation. According to editor-in-chief Abdel-Barri Atwan, officials accused the paper of publishing stories hostile to Jordan, but did not specify which.(87) In their May 23 issues, various Jordanian dailies and weeklies ran advertisements from Al-Quds al-Arabi reminding readers that the full text of the newspaper was available daily at <>. According to editor Atwan, there were no reports of the site being blocked, and many Jordanians read the newspaper online. Al-Quds was later permitted to resume distribution of its print copies in Jordan.

Despite a relatively unfettered Internet, the increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and the press in Jordan(88) have cast a shadow over Internet use. It is widely believed that Jordanian security authorities read the comments posted in the chat rooms and bulletin boards established by Jordanian ISPs as forums on domestic issues. During 1996 the intelligence services summoned at least two persons for questioning over messages with political content that they posted on bulletin boards or chat groups, according to Thamer A. Obeidat, an opposition political figure. Two Jordanian journalists separately confirmed his account to Human Rights Watch. Obeidat said the individuals did not want their identities disclosed for fear of reprisals.(89)

Human Rights Watch is unaware of such incidents recurring after 1996. However, several Jordanian Internet users told Human Rights Watch that while discussions about domestic political issues in the chat rooms and bulletins boards are more wide-ranging than the local print or broadcast media, users feared repercussions if they broke unspecified rules governing the way issues could be discussed. Marwan Joma, the general manager of NETS, one of the largest private ISPs, explained in a May 26, 1998 phone conversation with Human Rights Watch:

There are very few rules, but NETS, being in Jordan, has to comply with local laws. This means users must not use foul language nor attack public figures. You can attack the policy of a certain minister, but you can't attack [them or other] subscribers personally. NETS doesn't screen [i.e., censor] messages, but we read the messages, like any other user, and if there's a [transgression] we send the user a reminder, and we can suspend them from a [forum].

Authorities directly pressured one online publication, Amin (Arab Media Internet Network, <>), which seeks to make available news and commentary not provided by the traditional media. Amin's Jordan office was opened in 1997 as a project of the nonprofit international organization Internews (<>), which supports independent media in what it describes as "emerging democracies" and works to combat censorship. Amin quickly attracted some of the country's most talented journalists as contributors. In addition to providing links to the web sites of over one hundred Arab newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations, Amin posts on its "Eye on Amman" link the latest communiqués from human rights organizations and coverage of Jordan's parliament, nongovernmental organizations, and women's issues.

According to Ra'ed al-Abed, then managing editor at Amin, the advent of the service provoked the ire of certain government officials. While some of Jordan's print publications have Internet editions, Amin was the first local media organ that is based online. During the first half of 1998, Bilal al-Tal, then-director of the government's Office of Press and Publications, phoned Amin's offices on numerous occasions, warning the staff that they were not allowed to write about a particular topic, and that they were violating Jordanian law by operating without a license. However, al-Tal never formally initiated procedures to close down the agency. According to Fadi al-Qadi, the project director of Amin in Jordan, the agency applied for legal status as a nongovernmental organization in 1997, and in August 1998 that approval was granted.

A Jordanian journalist who is a fan of Amin commented to Human Rights Watch, "Because the laws are not clear, Amin presents a new challenge: it's like a newspaper but the [authorities] cannot treat it as a publication. Yet when they saw the content, they didn't like it and so they started calling them and telling them they were violating the press law."

According to a former editor at Amin, the agency's web site pushed the limits of what was appearing in Jordan's other news media, but did not feature any item that officials had explicitly ordered newspapers not to publish. He observed, "We have to be careful because operating in Jordan...we can't talk freely about the royal family, we wouldn't think about it as long as the laws are what they are. These are 'red lines.' If it comes to analysis, that's okay, but you cannot point fingers at any of the royal family."(90)

On September 1, 1998 the draconian Press and Publication Law took effect, restricting press freedom in a variety of ways. The broad language of this new legislation has been criticized by journalists and human rights activists in Jordan and overseas.  Article 2, which defines "publication" as "any media in which meanings, words, or ideas are expressed in any way," could easily be interpreted to apply to online publications, although authorities have not to our knowledge explicitly stated this to be the case. Features of the new law that restrict free expression include requirements that:

  • private non-daily publications secure a minimum capital of 100,000 Jordanian dinars (about U.S.$140,000); dailies must have a minimum capital of 500,000 dinars within a three-month period in order to publish, a sevenfold increase from the previous law (article 13);
  • publications "refrain from publishing anything that conflicts with the principles of freedom, national responsibility, human rights and values of the Arab and Islamic nation" (article 5); and
  • periodicals [which are also defined in a way that could include online publications] refrain from publishing any materials containing content deemed objectionable, including anything that "disparages the King and the Royal family...infringes on the judiciary or undermines its independence...[and that] encourages perversion or leads to moral corruption" (article 37).

Violations of article 37 make a periodical subject to fines of not less than 5,000 dinars (article 47) and possible court-ordered closure (article 50). As of May 1999, the Press and Publications Law had been invoked only once to suspend a print publication;(91) its effect on online media remained unclear.

83. Letter to Human Rights Watch from Marwan Muasher, Ambassador to the United States, May 21, 1998.

84. A newspaper profile of cybercafés in Jordan reported that there were fourteen in Amman. Bassam Badareen, "Maqahi al-Internet fi Amman: al-Bahth 'an az-Zawja al-Munasaba...wa Afdhal at-Turuk li-Suna' al-Qunbala an-Nuwawiya," ("Cybercafés in Amman: Looking for a suitable wife...and the best way to build a nuclear weapon") al-Quds al-Arabi, September 29, 1998. An article in the October 6, 1998 Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that there were fifteen cybercafés in Amman and nearly twenty elsewhere in Jordan. As reported in FBIS, October 29, 1998.

85. Letter from Ambassador Muasher.

86. Jed Weiner, "Jordan and the Internet: Democracy Online?" Middle East Insight, May-June 1998, pp. 49-50.

87. Telephone interview with Human Rights Watch, May 26, 1998.

88. See Sa'eda Kilani, Black Year for Democracy in Jordan: The 1998 Press and Publication Law (Copenhagen: Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, September 1998); Human Rights Watch, "Jordan: Clamping Down on Critics: Human Rights Violations," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 9, no. 12, October 1997; Human Rights Watch, "Jordan: A Death Knell for Free Expression?" A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 9 , no. 5, June 1997.

89. Letter to Human Rights Watch, May 17, 1998.

90. Telephone interview with Human Rights Watch, May 14, 1998.

91. A court of first instance suspended Al-Majd weekly on February 14, 1999. Publication resumed after an appeals court overturned the suspension, but the charges against the weekly were not dropped.

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© June 1999
Human Rights Watch