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Jordan's Flourishing IT Economy Could Falter With Passing of New Media Law

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, October 2 2012

Jordan occupies an interesting role in the Middle East Internet world. For years it was one of the few countries in the region known for relatively free Internet access. Surrounded by states ruled by despots, the small kingdom's reform-minded, western-oriented king and queen presided over a comparatively liberal country. Jordan also became known as a regional hub of Internet innovation, driven by a highly educated, English-speaking professional class.

But the upheaval of the Arab Spring has shaken the kingdom up — and not necessarily in a good way. Jordan is surrounded by countries in transition or locked in violent struggle, from Syria with its civil war to Iraq with its fractured population and the restive West Bank, under Israeli military occupation while about 60 percent of Jordan's population is Palestinian. As the New York Times reports, rising prices and a crackdown on political dissent have disturbed Jordan's placid political waters. There have been calls for political reform and criticism of the king's policies. In response, the state cracked down on press and Internet freedom.

Last month techPresident reported that dozens of Jordanian news and information sites went dark for a day in a SOPA-style protest of proposed legislation that would effectively give the state sweeping powers to censor and block online content. Despite the protests, the legislature passed the bill, which is actually an amendment to the existing Press and Publication Law. According to news reports, King Abdullah, whose step mother Queen Noor publicly tweeted her opposition to the bill several times, will endorse the bill. Once passed, the amended Press and Publications Law will require electronic publications to obtain a license from the government. The publications will be held responsible for the content of readers' comments.

This week Bloomberg has an article that presents Jordan as a success story in terms of Internet innovation — but one that might now be undermined by political events.

The law requires any website hosted in Jordan whose “activity includes publishing news, investigative reports, articles and comments related to the internal or external affairs of the Kingdom” to be licensed by the government and holds the sites responsible for the accuracy of their content and for user comments posted there.

“It will have a chilling effect,” says Christoph Wilcke, Jordan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We are seeing a regression on the king’s reform agenda.” King Abdullah didn’t respond to requests for comment on the law.

For now, Jordanian entrepreneurs are creating some of the Middle East’s biggest e-commerce platforms such as Souq.com and MarkaVIP to feed consumer demand -- including demand from wealthy Arab women in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Bloomberg's agenda is business, so the article does not dwell on how the new law will affect freedom of expression, but Jordan is well known for its online news sites in Arabic and English. Until now they operated with more freedom than print and television, which were subjected to existing press censorship laws. But the new law will place severe limitations on online news sources, too.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.