Amendments to the Jordanian press law, which have been passed by both houses of Parliament and received the approval of King Abdullah, have been widely criticised by journalists and members of the online media who are concerned that the law will further restrict media freedom in the country.
Amendments to the Press and Publications Act were discussed during a session in Parliament on September 11, which saw 14 members withdraw and four deputies resign from the National Guidance Committee.
Discussions over the Press and Publications Act saw 14 members walk out of Parliament, expressing their belief that the press law “infringes on freedoms.”
The amendments to the law, which received royal approval on Monday, will affect online news agencies, while social media and networking sites will not fall under the new regulations according to the government.
However, the definition used in the legislation is "an electronic site on the internet with a fixed address that offers publication services.” All sites that publish "news, investigations, articles, or comments, which have to do with the internal or external affairs of the kingdom" will now have to be registered and licensed with the Jordanian Press Association and government authorities.
The new law will place the burden of responsibility for comments made on websites upon the editors’ shoulders. This is a particularly contentious article within the law and something about which journalists are especially concerned. The amendments also dictate that websites must archive any comments for six months.
The removal of a clause which would have enabled the government to block any website without judicial review was seen as something of a victory for press freedom advocates, but there remains strong opposition to the changes, especially throughout online media.
Move is politically motivated
Fateh Mansour is programmes manager at the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), an organisation which has consistently expressed its concerns about the impact of the amendments to the law and the consequences for journalists in Jordan.
The CDFJ continues to protest the new law on a daily basis, and Mansour described the centre’s concerns about the amendments to Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
“It is not possible to view this development separately to the political situation in Jordan at the moment – the government is trying to stop public uprisings and they believe that this is a way to do that,” he told DCMF.
While online media has been considered a contributing factor to popular protests, he argued that the government feels that the situation is calm enough to pass legislation which aims to ensure that this remains the case.
However, the CDFJ believes that this will have a negative impact on the media landscape throughout the country.
“In general I think this will affect the whole image of the media in Jordan,” he said,
“Comments made are considered a part of the legal story – this contradicts professional media standards as comments are personal,” he noted, adding “and there is the requirement that every editor is a member of the Jordanian Press Association which is already a very closed organisation.”
Human Rights Watch expressed similar concerns, and senior Middle East reporter, Chritoph Wilcke said: “The government has long imposed restrictions on how Jordanians may express their thoughts and opinions.”
“The state should be rolling back those laws, not extending them to online expression,” he added.
“Streamlining online media”
Minister of state for media affairs and communications, Samih Maaytah said: “It should not be mistaken that there is no doubt that the government will not allow press freedoms to be undermined.”
“The aim of the law is to ensure professionalism and to streamline the online media sphere in order to address flaws that have been caused by some intruders to the profession,” he added.
The government’s line suggests that choosing not to address online media and turning a blind eye to these apparent violations would result in increased damage to the media sector in general.
They argue that by introducing legal restrictions, they will improve conditions for Jordanian journalists.
Amendments will help safeguard professional ethics
Hani Hazaineh, a reporter with Jordan Times who has been covering recent developments, said that while there is a problem regarding press freedom in Jordan, these amendments will not threaten the right to expression, and will help to organise online journalism.
“Throughout the Arab Spring, anyone could write anything and nobody was fact-checking or doing their jobs properly,” he told DCMF.
“I totally support press freedom and am completely against any limits on expression, but people have to stick to the ethics of the profession,” he argued.
Hazaineh admitted that there is a general problem with press freedom in Jordan, but said that the print media and other outlets will benefit if online journalists are held to account for their work.
“We have between 400 and 600 new websites now, and nobody writing there has ever been a journalist,” he said, adding “they need to be held to account.”
“There has been total chaos and this has done serious damage to the real media,” he said.
“Press freedom is always evolving, it is something which changes with time,” added the reporter, who has been at the newspaper for seven years.
“Generally speaking we have a problem and we are working to change the situation here so it matches international standards.”
Many websites facing closure
The new law has left many online journalists and editors considering their future and questioning whether they will be able to continue their work. Basil Okoor, editor-in-chief of the Jo24 website, told DCMF that the amendments will seriously affect all online media, and as a consequence, everybody in Jordan.
“This is the worst decision in the world – from the beginning we rejected this law and we have been protesting all the time,” he said, adding “it will affect all internet users and it will damage the image of Jordan around the world.”
“Now we are no different to North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China or Syria,” he added.
The online editor said that he was unsure of what the future will bring, and many of his colleagues had already decided that they will be unable to continue their work online. He explained that journalists had attempted to negotiate with government officials and had offered a number of suggestions of how to improve regulation to no avail.
“We want to regulate this, and we are ready to talk to everybody, but they didn’t want to hear us,” he said, arguing “what is happening in Jordan is very dangerous – this is totally the opposite of what the King promised.”
Need to ensure accountability
While there is a need for some sort of regulation of online news agencies to ensure that rumours and hearsay are not accepted as truth, it seems that the proposed amendments to the press law adopt an overly restrictive approach and are aimed at exerting complete control over the digital news, similar to the government’s control over traditional news outlets.
Mansour explained that the CDFJ agrees wholeheartedly that online media needs to be regulated: “There are questions about the credibility of online news – that is 100% true, and we have provided alternatives to Parliament with the aim of achieving these goals.”
“There is also a need for self-organisation and regulation from the websites themselves,” he argued, adding “but this is something which will take time – it will not happen overnight.”
There are those in Jordan, predominantly in the print media, who feel that the laws could have the desired effect and “streamline” online news sites, but others are fearful that an already restrictive government is aiming for complete control over the media.
Source: DCMF, BBC, CDFJ