The Middle East Channel

Jordan's website blocking controversy

Last month, King Abdullah II released the fourth in a series of "discussion papers" on reform and change in Jordan. Like the first three, the new one was a well-crafted discussion of liberalization and reform. Unfortunately for the regime, however, there has been a great deal of discussion in Jordan about reform and change, but most of it recently centered on a series of crises -- from media censorship to unrest in Ma'an (in the south of Jordan) -- rather than on the fourth paper. Clearly that was not the intention. So what overshadowed this latest treatise and reform initiative? Partly timing, and partly a Jordanian public that is focused on different issues right now, not least of which is economic hardship.

Importantly, the fourth paper called specifically for civil society activism and citizen empowerment, yet the timing of its release could not have been worse: as it coincided with government blocking of more than 200 news websites across the country. The new paper was linked to a new initiative -- Dimuqrati -- that was unveiled on June 2 with great fanfare at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman. The Dimuqrati initiative is designed to empower citizen groups and grassroots civil society organizations, providing grants and funding for their work, and it is led by a highly regarded reform advocate, Omar Razzaz. The flourish amounted to more of a fizzle, however, as the initiative was -- ironically -- overshadowed and even eclipsed by the move against many independent media sites on precisely the same day. The wave of internet censorship also came immediately after Jordan had played host to the World Economic Forum (WEF), where the kingdom's openness and reforms were key points of discussion and pride, and even the international meeting of the International Press Institute (IPI), where Jordan's Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour had praised the importance of press and media freedoms. 

The move to block select internet news sites had been building for some time. A year ago, the previous parliament and the previous government passed controversial legislation restricting internet news sites. The idea was to rein in tabloid style journalism that critics argued was shoddy at best, and amounted to chronic character assassination, libel, and outright disinformation at worst. The new law, however, targets all news websites and requires them to register with the government and to have an editor that is a certified member of the Jordan Press Association (JPA). But the JPA has, thus far, been limited to print media journalists, and many sites objected to registering with the state as a matter of democratic principle. 

Many reform activists and journalists assumed, at the time, that the king would overturn the decisions of parliament and the government, but he did not. A year later, many assumed that the government would not really implement what was seen as a fairly draconian, and rather un-Jordanian, approach to online media. After all, Jordan has been one of the most open and most advanced countries in the entire Arab world when it comes to information technology, the internet, and social media. Most Arabic-language content on the internet in the region comes from Jordan. And Abdullah himself has predicated economic development on encouraging international investment in the kingdom, based on its openness to international business. This case is made often, in state visits to foreign capitals, and in semi-annual meetings of the WEF (most recently in May at Jordan's Dead Sea resort). Shutting down hundreds of news sites, and indeed restricting the internet at all, clearly runs counter to these messages.

"Is this what was meant by democratic empowerment?" asked Basil Okoor, editor of the blocked website JO24.net, at a protest rally. "It's hard," he noted in a discussion earlier that day, "people will continue to work, to fight the system, but advertisers?" Similarly, Daoud Kuttab, editor of the blocked Ammannet, noted "they didn't stop us from working, they stopped Jordanians from seeing our work" --  at least temporarily. Many sites continued to post articles via Twitter and Facebook and included instructions on how to get around the blocking by using proxy servers. This was a skill known to many in Libya, Tunisia, and Syria, but new to many Jordanians.

Why now, many Jordanians asked? For some, it seemed evidence that the royal court and the bureaucracy of governance were simply out of sync. Other journalists and activists I spoke with wondered aloud whether it was a more deliberate effort to put existing sites on notice, and hence to encourage Jordan's already problematic media culture of self-censorship, and simply to silence others outright. "They are after the chilling effect," suggested one editor. Others cited a very real set of internal and external crises -- from unrest in Ma'an to the Syrian civil war -- suggesting a state desire to tone down coverage of these volatile issues. Still others suggested that the motivation may lie with the problem of sensationalist news coverage and web-based viral videos, and concerns over what these may mean for Jordan's domestic stability later this summer, when electricity prices will likely be raised and protests and even riots are just as likely to follow.  

The change in media and internet openness has led not just to criticism from domestic democracy activists and journalists, but also to a torrent of international criticism, especially from NGOs (compared to relative silence from many allied Western governments), including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. To his credit, Ensour (who, as a member of the previous parliament, voted against the internet restrictions) met with representatives of many of these press freedom NGOs this week in Amman to discuss the issue.

Some Jordanians are sympathetic to the blocking of sites they deem irresponsible in their reporting. However, the act of censorship undermines Jordan's economic development goals, its business climate for would-be investors, and very importantly, the democratic and reform initiatives that the king has been discussing in his four papers, and in the series of reforms that have emerged since 2011. These include amendments to the constitution, creation of a constitutional court and an independent electoral commission, and new laws on elections and parties, all of which culminated in the January elections. 

It is not too late to undo the damage of the press and internet restrictions. With a prime minister who had voted against the law, a core of parliamentarians willing to revisit the issue, and a king who has, up to this point, always supported internet openness and media freedom, the law can be radically revised, or better yet, repealed. That will still leave the real issues of tabloid sensationalism and libel concerns that had led to the restrictions in the first place. But these would be better dealt with via the courts, and perhaps through a collective effort at a code of ethics for online journalism. Former Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa'i tried this measure before but his government fell shortly after the start of the regional "Arab Spring." It might be time to revisit these contentious issues from that angle, rather than the more sweeping move of shutting down websites outright.

Meanwhile, the shadow of the Syrian war looms ever larger and ever darker over Jordan. The kingdom now hosts more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. As tensions increase, and the war continues to spill over each of Syria's borders, U.S. military backing of Jordan now includes "leaving behind" (following joint military maneuvers) Patriot Missile batteries and F16 Jet fighters for use, if necessary, by the Jordanian armed forces. The tensions and dangers to Jordan's borders and internal security are real, but all the more reason to underscore and reinforce Jordan's record of openness and inclusion, by restoring its internet and media openness to match in real terms the ambitions of the regime's reform program.

Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy. 

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egyptians rally over Islamist governor appointments

Protests have continued for a third day in Egypt's tourist destination of Luxor, in Upper Egypt, over the appointment by President Mohamed Morsi of Adel al-Khayat as the new governor. Khayat is a member of Gamaa Islamiya, the ultra-religious group responsible for a 1997 attack at Luxor's Hatshepsut Temple that left 58 tourists dead. Among the demonstrators are many tourism workers, who are concerned about their jobs and preserving the area's heritage. Egypt's tourism minister, Hisham Zazou, submitted his resignation on Wednesday in protest of Khayat's appointment, but Prime Minister Hisham Qandil rejected his resignation. Protests have also erupted in Monufiya against the appointment of Ahmed Sharawy as the new governor. Demonstrators have blocked entry into the local governorate office and cut phone cables. Morsi appointed 17 new governors across Egypt Sunday, including eight Islamists, seven of whom belong to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party. Many analysts see the appointments as part of an effort to shore up support ahead of what are expected to be large anti-government protests set for June 30, the anniversary of Morsi's election.

Syria

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has placed six ancient sites in Syria on its endangered World Heritage list. According to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, "due to the armed conflict situation in Syria, the conditions are no longer present to ensure the conservation and protection of the Outstanding Universal Value of the six World Heritage properties." The endangered list includes the city of Aleppo, which has sustained severe damage from fighting including the destruction of the minaret of Umayyad mosque, as well as the cities of Damascus and Bosra, the northern villages of Syria, the Roman ruins at Palmyra, and the castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Qal'at Salah El-Din (the Fortress of Saladin). Meanwhile, Syrian opposition forces launched an attack on the main M5 highway that goes through Aleppo to the Turkish border. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, rebel forces had seized an army checkpoint on the Ariha-Latakia section of the road. Some opposition groups said opposition fighters had seized three check points, and would need three more to cut off the Syrian army's access to the highway. Fierce fighting has continued int the northern city of Aleppo, and rebel sources have reported that opposition fighters have received Russian-made "Konkurs" anti-tank missiles from Saudi Arabia. Another new threat to the Syrian regime is the country's rapidly weakening currency. The Syrian pound fell about 30 percent last weekend, in part with the U.S. announcement that it will begin arming some Syrian rebel groups. 

Headlines  

  • Britain's Supreme Court ruled sanctions invalid that were imposed on the commercial Iranian bank, Bank Mellat, because they were sought through a secret court.
  • Iraqis in the Sunni dominated provinces of Anbar and Ninevah, where protests against the Shiite-led government have raged for months, voted Thursday in provincial elections that had been delayed over security concerns.
  • A Qatari court has issued prison sentences to five people convicted of negligence in a 2012 deadly mall fire in Doha that killed 19 people, including 13 children.
  • Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Lebanon said the kingdom will deport Lebanese citizens "who financially support" Hezbollah. 

Arguments and Analysis

Syria: The G7+1 Communiqué' (Frederic C. Hof, Atlantic Council)

"In the end, perhaps it is enough that the West signed up to nothing in Northern Ireland that would tie its collective hands. President Obama told interviewer Charlie Rose recently that Syria is not Iraq, and that ‘serious' US national security interests are engaged by the impact of what is happening inside Syria on American allies and friends on Syria's periphery. How to stop the Assad's shelling and bombing campaign of terror against residential areas is the key question facing the US administration. Until that issue is satisfactorily addressed, Syrians will suffer needlessly, friendly countries will be swamped by refugees and security challenges, and Geneva II will not likely happen. Kofi Annan had it right long before he left the stage: unless and until the Assad regime takes the necessary de-escalatory steps, nothing meaningful can happen diplomatically. Borne aloft on the shoulders of Iran and Hezbollah, however, Bashar al-Assad's idea of diplomacy has nothing to do with Geneva I or Geneva II."

In Libya, Militias Rule' (Anas El Gomati, Al-Monitor)

"Repatriating security infrastructure in Tripoli began under former Minister of Interior Shuwail in the last few months. However, Libya's other cities and border towns are littered with militias clinging onto vital infrastructure. With weapons trading between Algeria, Mali and a string of recent bombings in Niger, the inability to control this infrastructure confuses any coherent intelligence gathering, or wider national security strategy.

The ease and access to infrastructure to conduct terrorist activities is one of the biggest problems facing the Libyan state, shackling the democratic transition within an atmosphere of uncertainty.

A reformed, doctrinal security service that respects human rights must be a parallel initiative. By reforming and reinstating the most feared of Libya's security services, Ali Zidan can begin to monitor and gradually improve the security quandary. A unified communication system to instill coherence in the process is only the beginning of a long-term process. International assistance will come in its droves in order to rebuild this feared arm of the state. The question for Zeidan will be where to draw the line between security and sovereignty to begin to navigate the country to safety."

--Mary Casey and Joshua Haber

AFP/Getty Images/STRINGER