The Jordanian government ordered that a controversial media law go into effect on Sunday, in a sudden erosion of online press freedom just days after King Abdullah promised human rights reforms.
Jordan’s Press and Publications Law, a September 2012 measure that requires online media to register with the Jordanian government, went into effect this week in a move that brings Jordan in tune with repressive media laws passed across the region after the Arab Spring. Some 263 news sites not in compliance with the law were ordered censored, including popular outlets JO24.net and Amman Net, according to a Human Rights Watch press release.
Jordan's media law is consistent with measures in place elsewhere in the Middle East that target online news outlets, which have throughout the region become hotbeds of dissent and spaces for choreographing challenges to government policies. In a much criticized move in December, Egypt passed a new constitution that granted the state the authority to shut down news outlets in violation of the vague guidelines listed in the document, including compromising national security. Most recently, Qatar — long heralded as a bright spot for media freedom, as home to international news source Al-Jazeera — passed a cybercrime bill in May that threatened shut down news outlets publishing "false news" or stories infringing on "social principles or values."
Many of the affected Jordanian news organizations had refused to register with the government in protest of what they see as a state overstep into media affairs. Other news sites said that registration had been impossible: the law includes a steep registration fee of $1,400, as well as a requirement that the editor-in-chief of the online news site have been a member of the official Jordanian Journalists’ Syndicate for at least four years, according to The New York Times.
The site closures come about a week after King Abdullah opened the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in the capital, during which he praised the Arab Spring and voiced his support for greater democratization.
"The Arab Spring and its call for human dignity has become the voice of our century,” said Abudllah, in a speech quoted on Al-Arabiya. “This is a reason to stand proud, but we cannot stand still. Reform, democracy and peace are always work in progress.”
Jordan’s media law, which applies to some 400 news sites in the country’s robust online media market, also holds the owner and editor-in-chief of an online media liable for comments or posts that users post to the website. Websites can be fined up to $14,000 for a user comment found to insult the royal family, contradict Arab-Islamic values, incite sectarian strife, or slander public officials, according to the Associated Press.
The law also gives the government unfettered power to shut down both foreign and domestic websites without notice or explanation.
“King Abdullah talked a good game about rights reform at the World Economic Forum just a few days ago, but didn’t wait for the dust to settle before moving to muzzle Jordanian news sites,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“The blocking is not intended to restrict freedoms … but the goal of this action is to organize the work of these websites, protect them, and keep from allowing those from outside the profession to inhabit the label of journalists…,” said the Jordanian government, in a statement quoted by Jordan’s official news agency and translated by Human Rights Watch.
"We will not allow personal attacks against individuals, or attacks against any groups or minorities," Information Minister Mohammed Momani told the Associated Press, referring to some recent incidents in which online media were blamed for inciting religious or social prejudice and inaccurate reporting involving public figures.
Jordan, which had not seen the Arab uprisings that have toppled many heads of state elsewhere in the Middle East in 2011, has received regular criticism from human rights groups for its forceful response to public protests urging political reforms. Its media, while generally freer than press outlets elsewhere in the Middle East, has also been hit with serious setbacks over the last couple years. Last February, blogger Enass Musallam was stabbed in an incident believed to be related to her critical writings on the Jordanian royal family. Later that month, Jordanian journalist Jamal al-Muhtaseb was detained for an article alleging misconduct by the Royal Court. He was released on bail in May.