Naseem Tarawnah

New Regulation: Goodbye Free Speech in Jordan

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This is a subject that, I admit, I have avoided writing about like the plague, and for good reason. After months of witnessing a group absurdly demanding the government actually move in to censor porn sites, and after months of a counter movement trying to convince people that self-regulation is the key and that any moves to censor pornography will undoubtedly give the government a mandate to apply blanket censorship on disagreeable content – after all this, we are finally, now, at the brink. It has come, not surprisingly, in the form of new amendments to the Press and Publications law that could usher in a new era for arbitrary censorship. If anyone reading this right now is experiencing deja vu, please note that we’ve seen this all before.

I should preface this post by a personal statement. In recent months I’ve grown increasingly cynical of the lack of progress in Jordan on nearly every front – political, economic, social and what have you – and for the sake of my sanity have attempted to shrink away from writing anything on this blog that would fuel this mental state I’m in. Since our Parliament voted on giving itself pay raises back in April, my cynicism has quickly shifted to a more dangerous state – apathy. It is perhaps disastrous for any citizen to be fairly convinced that very little progress will come about in Jordan, and this recent move by the sate to introduce typically ambiguous amendments to an arcane law that would dictate the last true arena of free speech is, simply put, the straw that broke this camel’s back.

Those arguing against moves to “block pornography” have listed numerous reasons why – in an effort to convince the state what I genuinely believe it lacks the mental capacity to comprehend. Such reasons include:

– The impact this will have on our IT sector.

– How this will make Jordan look to the global community.

– Self regulation tools are widely available and all a good parent has to do is call up their ISP to ask for parental control.

– The fact that censorship just doesn’t work. People who want to consume certain content will find ways to consume it, and they’ll drive that consumption underground.

And so on, and so forth.

Now I could write about any of the aforementioned. I could talk endlessly about the need for free speech and the impact it has on social cohesion and creating better informed citizens. I could talk about how foreign investments might be affected in the IT sector, or what impact this will have on the growing population of young Jordanians that are trying to find new and creative ways to create opportunities of entrepeneurship online. But none of it would matter, and none of it will change anyone’s mind. More importantly, I’m sick and tired of trying to convince my government to, simply put, do the right thing. I grow nauseous just at the thought that it’s the year 2012 and we have to actually convince the state that Internet censorship is a bad thing.

And at the end of the day, none of these reasons obviously click with the state. None of this matters to the state, given the amount of times they’ve made this attempt. What matters to the state is finding ways to prosecute citizens for what they say or publish online. No more and no less. We know this because we’ve seen it before. We know this because we’ve gone through this whole charade before. All that’s missing is the show closer, which is usually the King coming out and saying something about the sky being the limit when it comes to freedom of speech and a crowded room applauding for the time being.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Jordan is currently in a mentally unstable state of mind, and I really don’t know how many times we need to be hit over the head before we realize this is a zero sum game. Someone, somewhere, is convinced that Jordan’s online news sites need to be controlled, and that’s that.

The state has spent the better part of half a decade trying to find ways to do it without coming off as the bad guy. They do this by introducing laws that offer a constitutional paradox. For, you see, our constitution clearly states that every citizen is guaranteed freedom of speech, but within the law. And so laws are created to ensure those freedoms remain limited. It’s like a teacher on the first day of school telling her students that the sky is the limit when it comes to free speech in her classroom, and the school’s philosophy guarantees that right – and here’s a list of all the things we don’t want you saying while you enjoy that freedom.

So, given the state’s track record when it comes to this specific issue, and given the way things usually go down in this country (especially lately), Internet censorship in Jordan is, in my opinion, inevitable. Whether it’s the amendments to this particular law, and the subsequent parliamentary vote on it this week, or whether it’s next month or next year – all the signs and evidence presented by the state time and time again points to an inevitability.

Beware – this is not a cynical statement but a statement reflective of reality. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I think it’s high time we woke up and called it a duck. I think it’s high time we realize that this boils down to a political structure that is in place, consisting of the same recycled individuals with the same redundant thinking, and sooner or later, just like a former Prime Minister, the same policy comes back again to hit us on the head. And then, of course, the government will chime in with a chorus of “but this time it’s different; we promise!”

Now I don’t know about you, but frankly, I’m sick and tired of seeing this insanity flourish. Of going through this over and over again, and expecting that maybe, somewhere, there’s a glimmer of hope; a different result. I honestly do not see this happening in Jordan, be it with regards to Internet freedom or political reform or anything of that sort. Until one sees massive upheaval of the state and not just the typical window dressing moves of changing the people at the top, then we are going no where.

I am angry, and I am thirsty for hope. I am thirsty for leadership. I am thirsty for a vision, and thirsty for a change I do not see coming because the political will is either absent, apathetic, or careless. After all is said and done, after all the arguments have been made, I am simply angry – and you should be too. Over the years, my trust in the state has deteriorated to the point of non existence. And a state that has genuinely demonstrated its dedication to finding ways to regulate the last inch of real estate where freedom of speech and expression exist – is a state that is unworthy of my (or your) trust. It is a state that works against my interests. There is just no other way to put it.

So, this blog will be participating in an online blackout this Wednesday, August 29th (for more info: click). It is a collective effort to digitally protest the government’s censorship efforts, while giving users a taste of what the Internet might look like down the line.

And if the law is passed then the blackout, at least for this little blog, will be prolonged.

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