Blogging and Politics in Jordan: Part One

السبت 05 كانون الثاني 2008

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No Longer a Novelty: Blogging and Politics in Jordan

Written by Sam Bollier

[Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two part series on blogging and politics in Jordan and the wider Arab World. The series is a condensed version that can be viewed in its entirety at: http://saminamman.blogspot.com ]

How much influence do Jordanian blogs exert on political discourse in Jordan? What sorts of political change do bloggers effect in Jordan, and why is the Jordanian blogosphere tepid in comparison to many of its Arab peers?

Answering these questions proves to be quite difficult. While there have been a number of events in Jordan in which bloggers have had a clear-cut influence, it seems fair to say that, at the moment, the primary impact of Jordanian blogging has been on intangible processes that are intrinsically difficult to measure.

Marc Lynch’s 2007 essay entitled “Blogging the New Arab Public” is perhaps the most exhaustive study on Arab blogging as it relates to politics. The author argues that, although “it is highly unlikely that blogging will induce wide political change in the Middle East,” it “would be wrong to conclude that blogging has no role in Arab politics.”

In this article I examine the Jordanian blogosphere as a tool for political change. While blogs are not a catalyst for revolution in Jordan, they have proven to be useful in framing discussions and amplifying voices.

By facilitating communication, discussion and debate between people from different backgrounds, blogs can help create in its readers a mindset that is more analytical, more open to opposing points of view, and more willing to participate in the political arena. These traits are vital to the success of any democratic state – nations, after all, are formed by its people, and if its people are not instilled with a certain mindset, democracy will wither. This type of political change, as intangible as it may be, seems particularly important in any study of blogging in the Middle East, as many Arab policy elites – particularly in Jordan – are struggling with precisely this problem of how to “create” a democratic citizenry in their countries.

To answer my second question concerning the reasons behind Jordanian blogs’ political influence, or lack thereof, I identified several variables that I believed would determine the influence of blogs on a given region or country: access, ability/willingness, publicity and political culture.

Yet why does the Jordanian blogosphere lack the political prominence of its Egyptian, Bahraini, and Kuwaiti peers? This can be traced to four factors: (1) a low rate of Internet penetration in Jordan, (2) a culture of self-censorship, (3) an indifferent traditional media, (4) and few opportunities for public participation in Jordanian politics.

Access
How many people in a society can read and write, and how many have access to the Internet? What is the quality of that access – do many people own personal computers? How fast and how affordable is Internet access?

Internet access rates in Jordan are low compared to those of Western nations, but around the median of those of Arab countries. According to OpenNet.net, 11.2% of Jordanians are Internet users. Because just five in 100 Jordanians own a personal computer, and presumably even fewer have Internet access on these computers, a large number of Jordanians use the Internet in public places such as Internet cafes and community centers.

Although Internet access may be increasing, however, the fact remains that many of the most influential and widely-read Jordanian blogs are written in English, and thus inaccessible to a large majority of Jordanians. In comparison, television is accessible to all but the poorest, and newspapers to all but the illiterate. The mainstream media in Jordan derives much of its legitimacy solely from its ability to reach almost all Jordanians.

However, Arabic-language blogs in Jordan are rapidly increasing in number. As the cost of Internet access has dropped significantly in the past year and a half, less-affluent Jordanians have been able to start blogs of their own, the majority in the Arabic language. Naseem Tarawnah, author of the The Black-Iris of Jordan blog, estimates that the Arabic-language blogs in Jordan now slightly outnumber their English-language counterparts.

These two groups – those who write in English and those who favor Arabic – write about different topics, have different mindsets, and rarely interact with each other. English-language bloggers tend to be wealthy, Arabic-language bloggers poor. Tarawnah describes the two groups as living in “parallel dimensions.”

Ejeilat admits that, because of the “small segmented society” that reads English-language blogs, “to have an impact in Jordan, you can’t really do much with an English-language blog.” Judging by the comments on her blog posts, her readership primarily consists of other members of the blogosphere or dedicated blog readers, and tends to be highly educated and Westernized. However, Ejeilat notes that her readership is “a segment of society that can impact change.”

Ability/Willingness
How able and willing are society members to blog their opinions? To what extent does government censorship interfere with bloggers? Just as importantly, to what extent do people censor their own thoughts before posting them on the Internet?

Despite the existence of the Press and Publications Law, in Jordan government oversight of the Internet is much lighter when compared to that of other Arab countries. When compared to government censorship, however, self-censorship is a more salient issue in the Jordanian blogosphere. Such self-censorship tends to be cultural rather than political in nature – it is done more to avoid embarrassing one’s family than to avoid possible legal ramifications. Humeid gives as the reason for this the fact that Jordan is “a closely-knit society still. Everybody knows everybody else.” Former blogger Mariam Abu Adas, who wrote her senior thesis on blogging, traces this state of affairs to Jordan’s tribal origins; her view is that Jordan is “still a Bedouin society underneath it all.” As a result, families have a stronger hold over individuals, as compared to Egypt, where people tend to be more anonymous.

In addition to self-censorship, cynicism and fatalism crimp the willingness of Jordanians to blog about politics. Ejeilat says that Jordanians “are used to thinking that nothing they do would really make a difference.” She mentions as an example the rising oil prices, which are a major source of anger among Jordanians. Despite the anger, she says, “[Jordanians] don’t do anything about it, they don’t march in the streets, they don’t boycott.”

Publicity
What is the degree to which blogs are publicized and known in a society?

The amount of political influence exerted by bloggers depends to a great extent on their coverage by the print media. In Jordan, such publicity remains low, especially among Arabic-language daily newspapers. This lack of attention may be due to the fact that blogging is a very new phenomenon in Jordan. Reporters for major Jordanian newspapers simply do not read them, at least not systematically, according to former Al Ra’i editor George Hawatmeh. Newspaper professionals are not as sanguine about this new medium as are bloggers themselves. “People still want to hear the opinions of professionals,” argued Al Ghad chairman Mohammed Alayyan, and for this reason “the hype surrounding the blog concept is fading.”

Another reason for the low publicity could be that the connections between Jordanian bloggers and the country’s policy elite are limited. However, the number of Jordanian journalists who blog is increasing.

The connection between Jordanian blogs and Western media may in fact be stronger than that between these same blogs and Jordanian media. According to Ejeilat, stories on Jordanian blogs get picked up more often by foreign media than by local media. Because Jordan is a country that is concerned about its international image, publicity of the country’s blogs in Western nations may comprise a disproportionate source of the Jordanian blogosphere’s political influence.

Political Culture
How politically open is the society in question? Does it have a history of democratic institutions? Are there opportunities for people to engage in politics outside the realm of the Internet?

Political culture must also be taken into account when considering bloggers’ influence. In Jordan, there is little tradition of political institutions per se; tribal custom emphasized, and continues to emphasize, allegiance to people rather than to systems. Media criticism of the royal family is unheard of. And political parties were banned until 1992.

Compare this situation to Egypt, where there’s a much stronger tradition of journalism – the first newspaper in the Arab world was founded nearly 200 years ago. Political parties also have more clout in Egypt’s politics. Bahrain and Kuwait have had a longer tradition of democracy than does Jordan.

Lynch posits that Jordan “may simply lack the necessary political openings” for blogs to become more influential. He blames this state of affairs on Jordan’s “steady de-liberalizing” and the country’s few political parties. And, while Jordan may offer more political freedoms to its bloggers, Egyptian bloggers likely feel a greater need for change and so are less hesitant to use their blogs as a launching pad for political activism.

The author will graduate in 2009 from Brown University in the United States and was in Jordan studying politics and blogging. He can be contacted via email.