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Almahjoob marghoub: Jordanians fight back for an open internet

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Jordan probably won’t censor its internet. But just the fact that it is still trying is extremely disappointing.


Munir Atalla
2 September 2012

Web censorship is high on the list of issues people have come to take very seriously.  Whether it is the “Stop Online Piracy Act” in the United States or the latest attempts by the Jordanian government people are vigilant and quick to mobilize. 

The Jordanian government has been trying to find a legitimate way to censor the web for years to no avail.  But a recent anti-pornography push has reopened the window for the government to spread its tentacles further.  An anti-porn movement has left the government in an embarrassing corner, and some officials are taking the opportunity to push for an amendment that would subject online content to the same laws as print media.

First in line to raise their voices in outrage at the possible amendment were the bloggers, most of whom believe that this is just the start of a slippery slope and soon the government would have monopoly over web content.  This group of webizens advocates self-regulation and parental control that is only a phone-call away. 

Next, many famous bloggers organized a “web blackout” protest.  Only a few days ago, several prominent sites displayed an ominous black screen meant to be a preview of what is to come should the amendment pass.  The hash tag #BlackOutJO was circulated and even Queen Noor threw her weight behind the disgruntled. “Hypocrisy, lies, intolerance, hate, violence – all unhealthy evils. Where does it start and end?” she posted from her account along with the hashtag #FreeNetJO, a grassroots movement that has started to promote web freedom.

All over the web Jordanians are mobilizing to avoid being pushed down the abyss of censorship.  So will Jordan be forced to join the likes of China and Saudi Arabia in having a regulated web?  Unlikely. 

First of all, the move would be a blemish on King Abdullah’s reputation - not at home, but abroad, where people are more easily wooed by his moderate persona and celebrity status.  King Abdullah has been doing his utmost to emerge from the regional uprisings without seeming like yet another decaying dictator, and this move would run completely wreck that image.

Second, online activity is already heavily monitored and people begin with the assumption that big brother is always watching.  The streets are alive with rumours of hidden warehouses where armies of drone-like workers sit behind screens examining anything that their algorithms have flagged.  The government made this known when it arrested a female student a while back for an msn message criticizing the King.  So really, there is no need for them to censor when they would rather monitor and know which people are browsing what content. 

Third are the economic factors.  Foreign investors would think twice before investing in Jordan’s budding IT sector.  Seeing as King Abdullah has touted the Kingdom as the silicon valley of the Middle East (75% of Arabic online content originates in Jordan) it is improbable that he would endorse any moves that stifled the already troubled economy.

Lastly, as in all cases of prohibition, the government knows that there are ways to get around web censorship.  “Almahjoob marghoub,” goes the Arabic saying, that which is concealed is desired.

This begs the question, why is the government engaging in this seemingly irrational behaviour?  For the answer to that, look to the Facebook page of a movement aiming to block porn sites in Jordan.  The site displays figures of a man and woman with their hands united above the shape of a child, implying conservative family values.

In Jordan, the government has to constantly balance on the tightrope of all the country’s minorities and majorities.  The government needs to be seen by the people as populated by God fearing, conservative people lest it give the Islamic Action Front, their main rivals, an opportunity to jump in and play the faith card.  They must avoid at all costs the perception that they are a western-puppet regime like Mubarak was in Egypt or Al Khalifa is in Bahrain etc., etc.   Simultaneously, the regime must appear to western allies as secular, forward thinking, and moderate.  They have no intention of passing the censorship amendment; but they must uphold the charade, because on Facebook, the campaign to censor pornography has three times as many ‘likes’ as the counter movement.

Doing this comes at a cost.  On the short end of the bargain are the alienated bloggers and internet users of all ages, but to them, it is nothing new.  Nassim Tarawneh, a political commentator of influence posted on his blog recently, “It is perhaps disastrous for any citizen to find themselves pretty convinced that very little progress will come about in Jordan. This recent move by the state to introduce typically ambiguous amendments to an arcane law that would establish dictatorial powers over the last true arena of free speech is, simply put, the straw that broke this camel’s back.”  The young have moved from disenchanted to disgusted, and the next step is angry.  So no, the Jordanian government probably won’t censor online content, but just the fact that it is still trying is disappointing.  It is similar to the feeling of expecting sugar in your coffee, but after a sip there is only bitterness and the lingering question, “where is reform?”

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