Reporters Without Borders today released an open letter to King Abdullah criticizing the regime’s decision to block access to 300 news websites on June 3rd that the regime said were operating without proper registration. The letter points out many of the flaws in the law, including the fact that news publications require a government license to operate, as well as other restrictions that place websites and their operators at risk of prosecution for comments that are posted on their sites or for editorials that differ from the government’s positions. The text of the letter is as follows:
His Majesty King Abdullah II
The Royal Palace
Paris, 11 June 2013
Subject: Blocking of news websites
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to share with you its deep concern about your decision to block access to nearly 300 news websites on 2 June.
A September 2012 royal decree promulgating amendments to the press and publications law was widely criticized by Jordanian civil society. Many journalists and human rights organizations condemned and still condemn the new law’s imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of information, especially online media, which are now required to obtain a licence from the government in order to continue operating (http://fr.rsf.org/jordanie-nouvelle…).
Furthermore, some of the new law’s provisions regulating the work of news websites leave a permanent threat hanging over journalists whose editorial line is at variance with the government’s.
Reporters Without Borders pointed out at the time that this new law violated international standards on freedom of information, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the Kingdom of Jordan has adhered without reservation), article 19 of which covers freedom of opinion and expression.
The blocking of 300 websites, a serious violation of freedom of information and a breach of your reform promises, has confirmed our worst fears.
Reporters Without Borders urges you to restore access to the websites currently blocked within Jordan, and to rescind the recent press law’s repressive provisions, so that it guarantees freedom of information.
I thank you in advance for the attention you give to our requests.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general
A key element in a democratic system is that there are multiple centers of power, each of which is able under certain circumstances to limit the powers of the institutions. These institutional checks must be real, and must be immune to being overridden except in the most extreme of circumstances. In turn, those who are members of these institutions, such as parliament or the judiciary must exercise their duties responsibly to prevent both repression and obstructionism. In Jordan, recent events have given parliament a chance to demonstrate its institutional strength by exercising a check on the executive branch’s power. This opportunity comes as MPs have shown their objections to a new press law that has led the government to block numerous news websites, a list of which can be found here.
This is an opportunity for parliament as an institution to assert itself in a way that can move the reform process forward, but only if MPs take this opportunity. The government has indicated that it is amenable to a chance in the law, but this stance may be intended to stave off reform rather than to encourage it. Still, if the government is on record as supporting a change then it would be unlikely to oppose it should a change actually go through, because it would be politically almost impossible for it to change its position on this issue, which presents an opening that parliament can seize if it so desires.
The parliament needs to demonstrate its strength by reforming this press law in such a way that the government would find it politically impossible to object to it. It could start with several of the most problematic provisions – such as holding the owners of websites accountable for comments, and requiring comments to be about the same topic as the article, as well as eliminating requirements that news sites have a lead editor who is a member of the JPA. The bill would have to be passed in the Chamber of Deputies by a significant margin, which would make the Senate, and the regime, think twice about attempting to block it.
This is a crucial test for parliament as an institution – there have been clear objections raised to this press law, but and it is up for parliament to act to ensure that it fulfills its role of both legislating and acting as a body that can provide oversight against regime abuses. Only with parliament taking its proper role—with real power, not merely words describing how it has been reformed—can the political reform process move forward in a real way.