Within 24 hours Jordan may become the latest Arab nation to muzzle media freedom if Parliament passes a bill to censor internet access in Kingdom.
New amendments to the Press and Publications Law would require online news sites to register with the government, obtain costly operating licenses from the Ministry of Information, become members of the press association, appoint a chief editor and pay annual membership fees.
According to Avaaz, a global web movement dedicated to bringing “people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere”, the expanded ministerial powers could gag Jordanian bloggers, restrict or block public access to international sites and allow governmental monitoring and potential restriction of individual blog comments.
Activists conducted SOPA-inspired website blackouts last week and they’re staging sit-ins today and tomorrow to halt the censorship. Participating websites include Jeeran, Jo24, Wamda, and BeAmman, and a few hundred others. The goal of #BlackoutJo is to attract sufficient attention from mainstream media outside of Jordan to convince the government to withdraw its draft bill.
The activists have support from high profile Jordanians, including Queen Noor Al Hussein, who tweeted, “Hypocrisy, lies, intolerance, hate, violence – all unhealthy evils. Where does it start and end. #censorship #BlackOutJO
They contend that the bill would allow government to block any international website deemed to be in violation of the law. It will allow the state to censor and monitor viewer comments and hold website owners responsible for the comments posted on their sites (effectively demanding self-censorship of user content). Websites will also be required to archive all comments for at least 6 months.
The scope of the law is ambiguous, covering “online media”, which, at the government’s discretion, include social networks, photo and video sharing sites, blogs and news sites.
Avaaz commenced an internet blitz to “strengthen the call on MPs not to gag the net”. Within 24 hours of their email campaign, they attracted over 2,000 new signatures to their online petition. Their website states that Parliament has already passed the amendments, but “if we turn up the pressure on the Senate and His Majesty King Abdullah, we can stop it from becoming law”.
Activists are working to galvanize public pressure to influence the vote, keeping the Kingdom’s internet free.
Jordan’s emergent IT&T sector has the kingdom frequently tagged as the “Silicon Valley of the Middle East”. Almost half of Jordanian households have personal computers, a figure expected to double if government promises to cut sales tax on PCs and internet service are realized. Mobile phone penetration exceeds 120% of the population. Jordanians are fully plugged in.
Failing to halt these restrictive internet policies puts Jordan in line with Iran, Bahrain, and Tunisia (three of the seven worst nations for internet freedom, according to annual findings from Reporters without Borders and Freedom House (pdf) in association with the United Nations Democracy Fund). This is an important week for Jordan civil rights.
Sample of a blacked-out website screen shot via TechCrunch