Criminalising electronic journalism in Jordan

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Electronic journalism is a new breed of the industry that is in need of legal and administrative defence. This is the conclusion reached by many electronic journalists in Jordan after the latest conflict with the government, which resulted in the detention of one of their own.

Jordan’s attorney general ordered on October 20 the detention of Osama Al-Ramini, a member of the journalist syndicate and the owner of a licensed news website.

The act violates the country’s law and the pledge that has been made by the King to reject the imprisonment of journalists on the account of what they write.

In order to understand the problem, it is important to step back and look at the definition of  journalism in Jordan and most of the Arab world.

By law in Jordan, only members of the journalist syndicate the Jordan Press Association can call themselves journalists.

Anyone else claiming to be a journalist is considered an imposter and can be liable to imprisonment, although the law is rarely enforced in Jordan.

The issue of imprisoning journalists has been the centre of the struggle for many Jordanian and Arab journalists.

Cybercrime loophole

While Jordan’s Press and Publications Law was amended in 2012 to forbid the detention of  bona fide journalists, the detention of Ramini and others like him, is the result of a recent loophole in the cybercrimes law - specifically an amendment to the law (clause 11) that was approved without much fanfare by parliament last June.

The Prime Minister of Jordan, Abdallah Ensour earlier asked a governmental advisory body for the interpretation of clause 11 of the recently amended electronic crimes law.

The Office of Interpretation, headed by Judge Hisham Al-Tal, the president of the Judicial Council, responded on October 19 that the clause does allow the detention of a person accused of tort and slander on any electronic site; at the same time, the interpretation, which has the power of law, overrode clear clauses in the amended Press and Publications Law that forbids the detention of journalists.

The following day, the government ordered Ramini’s detention, causing an uproar among journalists, the syndicate and NGOs defending media. Especially angry were electronic journalists who felt that clause 11 of the electronic crimes law discriminates against them.

Print vs electronic publications

An electronic journalist can be detained for slander (without a judge’s order) for the same text that can be published in a print publication without the attorney general being able to touch the journalist.

The same 2012 amended Press and Publications Law that guaranteed immunity to journalists from arrest for their views also stipulated that electronic news websites must be licensed in the same way as newspapers.

Nearly 300 unlicensed websites were blocked in June 2013 because of their violation of the controversial law.

The blocking of websites brought criticism of Jordan from relevant media rights groups locally and internationally, local protests and an attempt to challenge the law in courts failed.

Publishers of electronic news sites that had complained about the new licensing scheme were told that by working for a licensed electronic publication, journalists and publishers will be protected from detention because they would automatically fall under the Press and Publications Law, which stipulates civil penalties but no detentions.

Double punishment

However, by being targeted for detention on accusations of slander, electronic journalists have been punished twice.

Having to adhere to the rigorous obligations of being licensed like a newspaper, including hiring an editor who is a four-year veteran member of the syndicate, electronic journalists are being negatively discriminated against by being detained before a judge can decide whether what they publish is slander or not.

The government decision to go after electronic journalists reflects a mentality that thinks it can deter all electronic media outlets by detaining journalists working for them.

This act is contrary to international commitments and it once again could break the trust between the government and the public.

When governments break their sacred promise to honour the right of the public to know and detain accredited journalists working for licensed news sites, they are attempting to muzzle the fourth estate.

The chilling effect of such detentions prevents professional journalists from doing their job, as they see that they are not protected even if they follow all the rules and regulations set out before them.

Jordan’s media scene was reviewed thoroughly this year by a UNESCO-appointed team that applied, for the review, the international organisations media index.

Some of the positive results highlighted by the report will most certainly be erased by the government decision to go after journalists in order to protect government officials or business people with close ties to the government.

The heads of both houses of parliament in Jordan have come out publicly against the detention of journalists, however, the government has yet to respond to the growing protests against violating what many thought had become old news - the idea of detaining a journalist for their publication.

Now it appears that electronic media is being singularly targeted. Could this be a sign that electronic journalism has become more powerful than print journalism?

Daoud Kuttab is a board member of the Vienna-based International Press Institute and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.  He is also the co-director of Community Media Network. Follow him on twittercom/daoudkuttab

 

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