The talk of Amman is Ammon

It has become as essential to Jordanians as their morning coffee. spoke with the two men behind Ammon, the website that became an overnight success as a platform for freedom of expression.
By Hilmi Al-Asmar, Correspondent
Ammon's 'offices' in a café in Amman. © Hilmi Al-Asmar

AMMAN, Nov. 8, 2007 - Samir Al-Hiyari and Bassel Al-Akour sit facing one another in a café in Amman while playing with their laptops and smoking their hubble-bubble.

Many in the Jordanian capital hold their breath out of a fear over what these two men publish on the first Jordanian electronic daily that has managed, in a very short period of time, to become as necessary to Jordanians as their morning coffee, and their evening coffee as well.  

Samir Al-Hiyari, who is known within the circles of Jordanian journalists as “Al-Basha” [the Pasha], describes the Ammon website as “a platform for free voices, for Jordanians of all origins, for all the Arabs and for all those who care about the free press”.

Bassel Al-Akour, who shares with Samir the management of the website from the café, a.k.a. the Ammon “offices”, is just as enthusiastic.

“Ammon", he says, "is the expression of a dream to see a professional, free media [in Jordan] where the sky is the limit. A media that is far away from the control of the censor and that of the editor-in-chief who puts personal considerations before professional ones”.

Silver Surfers

According to a local journalist who has been following the progress of the website, Ammon has “added to the Internet audience a new one that never used the web before, especially people in their sixties and above. As the website became the talk of the town, these people had to actually learn how to use the Internet in order to see what all the fuss was about.

Ammon, the journalist says, "has become a place of refuge and a platform for those who had none”.

It has become routine for many Jordanians to access the Ammon website to find information that is not carried by the regular newspapers, whether it is of articles or cartoons.

And those journalists who have been ousted from the mainstream Jordanian newspapers, have found the kind bosom of “Al-Basha” Al-Hiyari and his colleague Al-Akour embracing them.

For the two men, Ammon has become a full-time job. They regularly spend 12-hour days feeding reports into the website.

The biggest problem they face is the quantity and the quality of the comments posted to the website, they say.

Jordan has tough libel laws, so Al-Hiyari and Al-Akour have to constantly monitor the comments and weed out the ones that could get them in trouble with the authorities.

Recently, a controversial amendment to the Publications and Printing Law extended 'publication crimes' to 'any means of publication' in order to include the Internet.

Al-Hiyari has already had to face the courts because of comments posted by readers.

Silicon Valley

The Internet has taken off in a big way in Jordan over the past few years, by regional standards. Out of six million people, some 100,000  now have access to the Internet.
Jordanians are especially proud of their own answer to Silicon Valley, Shafeek Irshidat or University Street in Irbid, 85 km. north of Amman.

University Street became famous when it made the Guinness Book of World Records as the street hosting the most Internet cafes in the world, more than 130 today and counting.

Ammon's success story has led many other Jordanian journalists to seriously consider creating their own websites on the Ammon model.

But there is the looming question of how these platforms can operate freely in a country where democracy and freedom of expression seems to have come to a stand-still.

Ammon itself has already come under attack, when it suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from the web.

However, the website continued to be respected at the official level, and many official figures continued to cooperate with it by leaking information to Ammon.

Bassel Al-Akour also came under personal attack when he was fired from his job at the government-owned Radio and Television Corporation on Sept. 26, 2007.

Al-Akour learned about his dismissal from an article in the daily Al-Ra'y newspaper which claimed that he hadn't shown up for work for ten days in a row.

This angered the other RTV employees to the point of staging a protest in support of Al-Akour.

Al-Akour personally believes RTV is trying to get back at him because it holds him responsible for some critical articles on Ammon about  the programming on the state-run TV station.

He feels partly vindicated by the solidarity campaign that was staged by visitors to the Ammon website; but in the end he is still without a job.
Al-Hiyari too is feeling the pressure because the Al-Ra'y newspaper happens to be his own day job.

In the end, Ammon might well become a full-time project for both men.

"It's not just a website", they say as they take another puff from the hubble-bubble. "Ammon is an ambitious idea for an alternative media from which the voice of the silent majority could emerge, after having been muffled for so many decades for fear of punishment."