One of the best things about Jordan is its liberal and open attitude toward the internet.
In an Arab sea of restrictiveness (Lebanon is the exception) our open internet policy has enabled Jordanians to access all of the web (with the exception of one site: the US-based ArabTimes.com). This openness says something important about how the Jordanian state views the citizens: people with the right to access the information they want, not as half-humans who need to be “protected” from information.
Jordan’s internet openness has also spawned a promising web industry, whose fruits include companies like Maktoob.com, which became the first major Arab website to be acquired by global internet giant (Yahoo). It’s not just Maktoob.com. The industry now includes many players who target local, regional or even international users and markets.
Our King has been a champion of the IT industry and a voice for expanding press freedoms. Our Queen has over a million followers on Twitter and is a prominent innovator on YouTube. Several of our cabinet ministers and senior officials use Twitter (Minister of Energy Khaled Irani and Mayor Omar Maani come to mind).
Countless young (and older) Jordanian have an ongoing, sometime vibrant, national conversation online, across blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other networks.
That’s why we have to be concerned about the latest developments surrounding the applicability of the press and publication when it comes to the Kingdom’s news sites.
A new legal ruling by a court in Jordan, regarding a slander case brought against two Jordanian news web sites, has opened the debate about the status of electronic publishing in the country. The ruling said that electronic publishing is subject to the press and publications law.
So, what does that mean?
The worst case scenario would be that this ruling somehow leads to a totally misguided law that would require all forms of electronic publishing to be officially “registered”. This would be absurd, impractical and only give Jordan a bad name when it comes to freedom of expression. If such a law is passed (it would be a temporary law as currently we don’t have a parliament in session) it would mean that every news site (like Ammonnews and a dozen others) every blog (like 360east and THOUSANDS OTHERS) and even every Jordanian Twitter, Facebook or even phone user would need to go to the Ministry of Information and get registered as an ‘electronic newspaper’.
This would not make any sense.
The legal ruling could also be interpreted in a different way, namely as a way to protect people against defamation, whether online or offline. That would be OK. People need to have a legal means to protect their reputations in the media, wether this media is printed on paper or written on a computer screen. I am not a lawyer, but I am hearing people saying that slander and defamation are already covered with appropriate laws.
The grey area regarding the application of the press law emerges when talking about how the law places certain restrictions on the discussion of religious and security matters. These matters could have different interpretations and the law can lead to censorship and restrictions. But let’s not forget that a lot of these restriction actually exist socially and in people’s minds before they exist as laws. I personally believe that more and not less press freedoms should be given in future press laws.
As for the ‘Jordanian web’ I would advocate leaving it as a ‘free zone’ for expression. This serves freedom of speech and access to knowledge. It also serves the government as an important popular feedback channel. Placing restrictions on internet publishing would simply push more people into anonymous posting, or posting on international sites, which really serves no one in the country.
Slander is slander. It should be punishable by law. It is clear that there are excesses on the Jordanian web by opportunistic news websites or journalists/writers. But existing slander laws should be enough to deal with that (after reading the conversation on 7iber.com I would say that slander laws in Jordan are too intertwined with the press and publication law, so this point needs further clarification and thinking).
And anyway, in a world where anyone can start a blog or edit a Wikipedia entry, coming up with restrictive laws and trying to regulate what can or cannot be said on the web is almost impossible.
There have been cases in the US where web hosting companies removed hate-speech sites from their servers (I don’t know on which US legal grounds). But even the US cannot entirely wipe out Al Qaeda discussion forums which keep popping up here and there across the web.
In short: the benefits of an open internet policy far outweigh the threats or downsides. If anything, the Jordanian government should become a more ACTIVE participant in the online conversation in the country. In the mid 1990′s, NETS (today Batelco Jordan) pioneered the concept of ‘Ask the Government’ on Jordan’s first bulletin board. People could ask ministers a question and get answers. That was pretty progressive for the time. One of the guys behind this was none other than Marwan Juma, who’s IN the government today as our Minister of ICT.
I can only hope that our web stays as open and free as possible.
Update: Follow the rich conversation about this issue on 7iber.com.
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