Controlling Online Media in Jordan: Censorship or Rule of Law

April 7, 2015

Thoraya El-Rayyes

In 2012, a painting of the South African President Jacob Zuma was published online, depicting him in Soviet uniform with his genitals exposed. His outraged supporters wasted no time in calling for its removal from the Internet and the President himself said that the painting “seeks to create doubt about my personality in the eyes of my fellow citizens, family and children… to convey a message that I am an abuser of power, corrupt and suffer political ineptness” adding that he was shocked and “felt personally offended and violated.”

After an initial government decision that the painting was not appropriate for children and should be removed from the Internet, the authorities later decided that it was in fact legal to publish the image online. That same year, a case brought before South Africa’s constitutional court found that it is an unconstitutional limitation on freedom of expression to censor such material online.

This is a story that comes from a developing country whose recent history was marred by serious, institutionalized violence, not from some Scandinavian utopia where a broadband connection is a human right provided by the government to all. For this reason it makes for a particularly depressing comparison with the current state of online media freedom in Jordan.

In 2012 – after a concerted media effort to portray the Internet as a lawless badlands where crime goes unpunished and the state is powerless to protect victims – the Jordanian government decided to apply the Press and Publications Law to the online sphere, and proceeded to block hundreds of websites that did not abide by the law’s onerous requirements.

We all know that there is no lack of lawless spaces in Jordan. From the police no-go zone of Al-Lubban run by drug traffickers and car theft gangs, to the southern city of Ma’an where the state has stopped sending traffic police after a series of armed clashes between citizens and policemen, to Jordan’s Parliament where vigilante lawmakers argue amongst themselves enveloped in a carcinogenic fog of cigarette smoke, in defiance of the Public Health Law and without being held to account. So it is telling that there is one particular space that the government insists must be kept under the control of stringent legislation: the Internet.

The most known aspect of the Press and Publications Law is the requirement for Jordanian news websites to obtain a government license, or else face blocking by Internet Service Providers as a first step before legal procedures are taken to shut down the website’s operations. But this is only part of a bigger and more complex picture. According to the Press and Publications Law, the Director of the Jordanian Media Commission has the personal authority to decide which websites in Jordan qualify as news websites. In making this decision, he must only abide by the law’s vague definition that news websites are those which “publish news, investigations, articles, or comments, related to the internal or external affairs of the Kingdom”.

And not only does this law require news websites to have a full time Editor-In-Chief who has been a member of the Jordan Press Association for at least four years, but membership in the association is not guaranteed, and a large number of professional journalists in Jordan do not meet the membership requirements.

Licensing vs. Chaos?

Jordan’s government would have us believe that licensing news websites under the Press and Publications Law is necessary to apply Jordanian laws to online media. And although social media websites like Facebook and Twitter remain exempt from this law, this did not stop the government from prosecuting the Secretary-General of the Islamic Action Front, Zaki Bin Irshaid, for a Facebook post criticizing the UAE and sentencing him to three years in prison, before reducing the sentence to 18 months. Irshaid was tried under the Penal Code, and not the Press and Publications Law.

With or without licensing, it is clear that Jordan’s extensive restrictions on freedom of speech apply online. This includes a variety of so-called speech “crimes” set out in Jordan’s Penal Code, from statements that insult “religious feelings”, to those at odds with “the values of Arab and Islamic nations”, or which “offend public morals” or even “insulting a foreign country, its military, flag, or national symbol.”

What then, is the real motive behind licensing online media outlets? It is true that Jordan is not the only country that compels online media organizations to apply for licenses, and that several authoritarian regimes, such as China, also do this. But many countries consider media licensing to be a form of censorship. Instead, they only require media organizations to register with the relevant authorities, a process that does not involve obtaining approval that may or may not be granted.

And according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, placing generic bans on the operation of certain websites (as Jordan’s licensing system allows for) is a violation of international principles of freedom of expression. In the recent case of the Jordanian website Saraya News, the publication of specific pieces of illegal content that were considered to be promoting terrorism led to the entire site being blocked, including hundreds of perfectly legal articles in its archive. It is also worth noting that the Press and Publications Law played no role in the ability to bring a case against the publisher of Saraya News, who was tried under the Anti-Terrorism Law.

The cases of Zaki Abu Irshaid and Saraya News clearly show that the Press and Publications Law is not necessary for controlling illegal content online. But the law does create barriers to establishment of news websites, making them expensive to establish and run as well as restricting who can be involved through the stringent filter of Jordan Press Association membership. In this sense, it is clearly a mechanism for censoring media content before it even has a chance to be published.

From Argentina to South Africa: a world of possibilities

Research recently conducted by 7iber about internet and media laws in Argentina, Brazil, Finland and South Africa presents examples of legal systems that protect against the dangers posed by illegal online content (such as defamation, incitement to violence and violations of personal privacy) without unnecessary restrictions that suffocate online media.

None of these four countries requires websites to be licensed. In 2014, Brazil passed an innovative law known as the Marco Civil da Internet (Civil Rights Framework for the Internet) which governs the use of the Internet in the country. It stresses the importance of the right to freedom of expression and the right to exercise citizenship through digital media and describes access to the Internet as “essential to the exercise of citizenship.” The law also sets out a detailed set of principles, guarantees, rights and duties for Internet users as well as guidelines for state action.

Under this law, the courts are responsible for issuing takedown orders for illegal online content, and legal judgements on whether content should be taken down must take into account society’s collective interest in the availability of the content on the internet. If the courts decide to a ban a piece of illegal content online, the user who published it is entitled to have a note of explanation or the text of the court-issued takedown order published in its place. The only exception for this is for cases relating to private ‘sexual’ content or content containing images/videos of nudity. In such cases, websites and/or Internet Service Providers must immediately respond to a takedown request by the person featured in the content.

As is the case in many countries, Brazilian lawdoes not hold websites responsible for content created by users, such as comments posted on articles, unless the website fails to comply with a court-issued takedown order related to the comment.

In Finland, online media is regulated by the Freedom of Expression in Mass Media Act which applies to both online and offline media. Courts are entitled to order websites or Internet Service Providers to release the information required for the identification of anonymous users who have posted content online if there is good reason to believe that the content is illegal. The request to identify the user must be filed with the courts within three months of the publication of the message in question. A court may also order a publisher, broadcaster or Internet intermediary to remove or block a piece of content if publication of the content is illegal.

In 2008, these laws were used to identify and prosecute the Finnish blogger and far-right nationalist Seppo Lehto who published a number of anonymous “filth blogs”. The blogs claimed that various public figures were guilty of fabricated crimes, incited violence against them and were illustrated with manipulated pornographic images featuring their faces. Over forty web pages were blocked because of the court’s decision. Because he was a repeat offender, Lehto received a jail sentence for these crimes while his accomplice (a first time offender) only received a suspended sentence.

Finnish law also requires journalistic publications (whether online or offline) to have an Editor who is responsible for their content. But in contrast to Jordan’s stringent requirements, the law only requires that the Editor is at least 15 years old, is not bankrupt, and has not had her/his mental competency restricted by the state.

Ideology and internet control

Online media regulation is not primarily a technocratic issue, but an ideological one. It is no coincidence that in all four of the countries studied, the constitution makes strong legal guarantees for freedom of expression. Jordan’s constitution, on the other hand, pays lip service to the idea of freedom of expression yet allows for laws to place any limit on this freedom seen fit.

Constitutional protections of freedom of expression are essential for journalists, bloggers and even social media users to protect themselves from overzealous lawmakers. In South Africa, for example, a law was passed in 2009 allowing the government’s Film and Publications Board (FPB) to classify pornographic or violence-inciting materials. According to this law, any sexual or violent content that was classified as inappropriate for children would have to be removed from the Internet where it could easily be viewed by them. It was the FPB that was asked to classify the controversial painting of South African President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, on the basis that it was pornographic. After initially deciding that the painting was not appropriate for children and should be removed from the Internet, the FPB later reversed this decision. More importantly, a case brought before South Africa’s constitutional court that same year found that the FPB’s power to censor material in this way was an unconstitutional limitation on freedom of expression and the law was changed.

Towards a freer Internet in Jordan?

There is no question that Jordanian laws regulating online media go beyond what is necessary to control illegal content on the Internet. Various models of regulation from around the world show how it is possible to control illegal online content without stifling the media, but until there is real political will to protect media freedom and freedom of expression, Jordan’s repressive online media laws are here to stay.

Click below for full research.

  1. Enhancing Internet Media Freedom in Jordan

    It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the development of the Internet over the past twenty years has revolutionized the way media is produced and consumed. Not only has the internet enabled a mushrooming of diverse media platforms in a field where barriers to entry have historically been high, it has led to the creation of an ever-faster paced media industry that offers citizens a wealth of media content with stories reported almost as instantly as they unfold.