Over 2000 blogs from 126 countries are taking part in Blog Action Day today, October 16th, and this year’s theme is Human Rights.
Today, in Jordan, tens of activists face trial before State Security Court, a special court that flouts basic guaranteers of fair trial, one of them for views expressed over whatsapp. Thousands of individuals are detained administratively by orders of provisional governors under the Crime Prevention Law of 1954, without trial or access to legal justice. Scores of websites are blocked following amendments to the Press and Publication Law, which imposes mandatory registration and licensing on websites that “publish news, investigations, articles, or comments related to Jordan’s internal or external affairs”, and give the director of the Press and Publication department full authority to block unlicensed websites.
Starting October 24th, 7iber will have a week of content dedicated to issues of human rights in Jordan, coinciding with Jordan’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
But today, three and a half months after 7iber got blocked by the Press and Publication department, and after the case we filed to challenge the blocking decision was dismissed by the Higher Court of Justice, we’d like to take the opportunity of Blog Action Day to answer the question we often hear: why don’t you just get licensed?
Our answer is that we believe the Press and Publication Law to be in violation of the basic right of freedom of expression and press freedom guaranteed by the Jordanian Constitution and by international conventions of human rights ratified by Jordan, for the following reasons:
Article 15 – iv of the Jordanian constitution states that “In the event of the declaration of martial law or a state of emergency, a limited censorship on newspapers, publications, books and broadcasts in matters affecting public safety and national defence may be imposed by law.”
While there are other articles in the constitution that guarantee freedom of expression and press freedom, this one clearly states that “limited censorship” is only permissible in the event of martial law, and only in matters pertaining to public safety and national defense, which renders the current press and publication law unconstitutional.
Licensing has long been a tool used by undemocratic countries to regulate the establishment of independent media outlets. In free and democratic countries, only broadcast media are required to get a license, because airwave frequencies are a finite resource and allocation of bandwidth needs to be regulated. Print media, however, does not need a government license to operate. According to a report published by Freedom House in 2011 under the title “License to Censor”, international best practice standards call for minimal notification or registration requirements, which should not be used as a basis for denying an outlet permission to function or for governing content.
International best practice standards call for minimal notification or registration requirements
As a requirement for licensing under Jordan’s Press and Publication Law, a general-interest publication (or website), must have an editor-in-chief who has been a member of the Jordan Press Association (JPA) for at least four years (article 23). In addition, article 10 of the law prohibits anyone who is not a journalist from practicing journalism, and the law defines a journalist as someone who is a member of the JPA.
The JPA, in turn, does not acknowledge journalists who work in online media. Its membership requires training in an “official media outlet” for a period ranging between 6 months and two years depending on one’s academic degree. There is a proposal to amend the JPA law but it has not yet been passed by parliament.
So as it stands today, one cannot license a website in Jordan without an editor-in-chief who is approved by the government and who has received adequate training in a state-run or state-owned media outlet.
compulsory registration of journalists is an unjustified interference with the right to freedom of expression
According to international human rights standards, compulsory registration of journalists is an unjustified interference with the right to freedom of expression.
In a case presented to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1985 for advisory opinion on The Compulsory Membership in an Association Prescribed by Law for the Practice of Journalism, the court rejected the idea that journalism ought to be treated like medicine or law and said that “Unlike journalism, the practice of the law or medicine … is not an activity specifically guaranteed by the Convention [of Human Rights]”.
The court concluded that “reasons of public order that may be valid to justify compulsory licensing of other professions cannot be invoked in the case of journalism because they would have the effect of permanently depriving those who are not members of the right to make full use of the [right of freedom of expression].”
Based on the above, Jordan’s Press and Publication Law has always been in violation of the right of freedom of expression, even before it was amended to include websites, and the latest amendments made it more restrictive.
The law also loosely defines an “online publication” that requires licensing as any website with a fixed URL that engages in publishing news, investigations, articles, or comments related to Jordan’s internal or external affairs. This definition readily applies not only to news websites as the government claims, but to blogs, facebook pages, twitter accounts, youtube channels, and other social media platforms where individuals exercise their right to express themselves and publish or share content.
The Jordanian government insists that the law does not target blogs or social media platforms, yet one month after it blocked news websites, it blocked 7iber (long-regarded as a blog and nominated for Deutsche Welle’s Best of Blogs award for three consecutive years). This is not to say that it’s ok to block news websites but not blogs. This is to make clear that, contrary to the government’s stated intentions, this law is a tool to control and restrict internet freedom, and is vague enough to apply to any online platform.
As for the government’s justification that the licensing of websites is needed to protect individuals’ reputations against libel, defamation, and slander, Jordan’s penal code already covers these issues comprehensively. The UN and other international human rights’ organizations actually find that criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression. They recommend that all criminal defamation laws be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws.
The passing of the amended Press and Publication Law and the subsequent blocking of websites was met with heavy criticism from international media as well as human rights activists and organizations. The International Press Institute sent letters to King Abdullah and to the prime minister in June 2013 urging the lifting of the suspensions and calling the move a “step backward for press freedom and democracy” in Jordan. Yet the government went ahead with its decision. Many of the blocked websites obtained licensing to get the ban lifted. Others, including 7iber, took it to court, but their cases were dismissed. Whether next week’s review at the Human Rights Court in Geneva will make any difference is yet to be seen.
Whatever the outcome, we will continue to fight this law until it is abolished. We believe that this blocking of websites is not only unconstitutional, but also ineffective and unpractical. If you are in Jordan, you can access our content through our mirror website and through our facebook and twitter accounts, as well as our mailing list. Or you can access the original website and bypass the blocking (check this illustrated step-by-step guide on how to do it).