Jordan media up in arms over new online controls

Jordanian journalists voiced alarm on Wednesday over newly approved amendments to the press and publication law, warning that they threatened freedom of expression particularly in the online media.

Political analysts said the new legislation was a retrograde step that undermined promises of reform made in the midst of last year's Arab Spring revolts and threatened to tarnish Jordan's international image.

King Abdullah II issued a decree on Monday night approving the law in its new form, after parliament passed the amendments that require the country's 220 news websites to obtain licences from the government, which can censor content and hold journalists liable for posted comments.

The amendments also stipulate that website chief editors must be members of the Jordan Press Association.

"We reject this restrictive law that threatens press freedom and online expression," said Mohammad Ghneim of the Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists.

"The law will also affect social networks, blogs and access to information, especially now that Jordan is witnessing pro-reform protests and people have the right to know what is going now."

Nearly half the country's 6.8 million people are Internet users.

Journalists demonstrated on Saturday against the new changes after many news websites joined a "blackout," switching their homepages to black in protest at the legislation.

"We refuse to be terrorised," read a banner carried by journalists during a sit-in.

"You could be deprived of this content under this law and government censorship," said a message posted on the homepage of a local news site.

"The government seeks to control independent media and news websites, which are widely read by Jordanians," Basel Akur, editor of Jo24 website, told AFP.

"Online media played a key role in the Arab Spring, publishing people's views and positions. The government does not like this."

Jordan has been largely spared the kind of protests that have swept eastwards from Tunisia across the Arab world since early 2011, but it still sees regular demonstrations demanding political and economic reform and an end to corruption.

"A siege mentality controls the way the government thinks," said Mohammad Fdeilat, who runs Ammannet news site.

"The government has been trying for years to control news websites as people demand more freedoms."

But Information Minister Samih Maayatah defended the law.

"The law protects people's rights by ensuring that freedom of expression is practised in a responsible manner," he told AFP.

"It encourages news website to be more professional and helps enhance the media."

Some journalists agreed.

"We did not take part in the 'blackout' campaign because we think the situation of news websites needs to be organised," said Mohammad Hawamdeh, managing editor of the popular Khaberni news website.

"I do not think the law limits our freedom. These measures are important to stop unprofessional practices."

Wael Jaraisheh, managing editor of Ammon news, another popular website, echoed that view.

"We reject attempts to suppress freedoms, but at the same time a modern law to organise the work of news websites is a must," Jaraisheh told AFP.

Political analysts saw the hand of conservatives within the kingdom's establishment as behind the new legislation.

"It is illogical to come up with such a law while the authorities talk of reforms," said Mohammad Masri, a researcher at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic studies.

"It is obvious that conservatives are behind this law, which is a disturbing sign of backwardness.

Political analyst Oraib Rintawi said the law was "a step in the wrong direction."

"Almost everybody was against this law but the government did not listen," Rintawi, who heads the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, told AFP.

"We realise that some online excesses need to be curbed. But at the same time the government should not punish all media because of that.

"This will affect the image of Jordan and violate international treaties," he warned. "The media need support not censorship."

The amendments drew renewed criticism of Jordan from international human rights watchdogs.

"The government has long imposed restrictions on how Jordanians may express their thoughts and opinions," said Human Rights Watch senior Middle East researcher Christoph Wilcke.

"The state should be rolling back those laws, not extending them to online expression."

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