Controversy stirs in Jordan over amended press law

A Jordanian woman looks at a website in Amman. [Ali Jarekji/Reuters]

A Jordanian woman looks at a website in Amman. [Ali Jarekji/Reuters]

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The Jordanian parliament is currently discussing amendments -- approved by the government on August 22nd -- to the country's Press and Publications Law.

The proposed amendments "came in response to a need to regulate the way online media outlets conduct their work and require those among them that have an interest in the internal and external affairs of the kingdom to register and obtain a license like any print media publication", the government said in a statement.

These online media outlets will be subject to the same laws that apply to print media, and each outlet must employ an editor-in-chief.

The amended law also considers comments posted on these websites to be journalistic material and holds the owner, editor-in-chief and all employees responsible for any violations of the law contained in all written and published comments.

Additionally, the General Manager of the Department of Press and Publications has the authority to block any website hosted abroad if it violates any part of the law that applies to local sites.

The amended law also requires electronic media to maintain a record of comments they receive for at least six months.

Mixed opinions on the law

"The amended law contains positives that will end defamation, blackmail, character assassination and other [issues], and it encourages sites to take greater responsibility in their community," said Mohammed Shatnawi, an editorial board member of tarbiyanews.com.

"The law shuts down websites that do not have an official in charge and requires site owners to register and assume full responsibility for what is published on their site, in addition to being the party that is legally accountable for the site in court," he said.

Still, Shantawi said he believes the provision that holds website owners responsible for published comments "violates the freedom of expression provided for by all international conventions".

Mohamed Yassin, a website developer, said that defining the legal obligations of online journalism is essential to avoid encroachment on personal freedoms.

"The law and its amendments intend to regulate the operation of websites that have no identified owner or editor-in-chief who should bear legal, professional and ethical responsibility" for the site, he said.

Yassin told Al-Shorfa he expects the law to enhance professionalism "through a legislative framework that entrusts all involved with their responsibilities, from the editor to the citizen who posts a comment".

The Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists announced last week that it opposed the amended draft law, calling it "a move designed to squash media freedoms and take them backwards".

"The main objective of the amended draft law is to impose restrictions on electronic media and subject them to government control after they managed in past years to establish their independence and exercise self-censorship, acting as the people's eyes and ears," the centre said in a statement.

Journalists staged a sit-in front of the Jordanian Press Syndicate's headquarters in Amman on August 23rd after the syndicate's board called for an emergency meeting.

Syndicate members then raised the possibility of resigning en masse if the draft law is upheld.

Syndicate member Wissam al-Saaidah said the government did not consult with the syndicate on the amendments despite the fact the syndicate is the sole representative of journalists and media professionals in the kingdom.

"It violates the royal guidance and the strategic media guidance recently issued under royal auspices that emphasise the need to consult with the relevant authorities when laws and regulations governing the profession are drafted," he said.

"As a journalists' syndicate we are in favour of regulating the profession and reaching an understanding that regulates the syndicate's dealings with the government, provided that it does not compromise or restrict freedoms," he said.

Citizen journalists

Alaa al-Zoubi, an electronic media specialist, said he believes that government control over website operations runs contrary to global technology trends.

"What prevents news and information from being disseminated via social networking sites, which are not regulated by the new press and publications law?" he asked.

"Ordinary citizens have become journalists and are broadcasting news and reports on social networking sites and mobile phones, therefore people have space in other arenas to exercise their freedom of expression," he said.

Al-Zoubi said the law needs to focus instead on regulating the professional standards of news reporting in electronic media and impose moderation on online comments to ensure that they are constructive and are not used to defame or libel others.

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