In Jordan, a choice between self- or state-censorship



 
The Jordan Press Association wants Jordanian news websites to commit to a code of ethics. While some cry self-censorship, others point out that the alternative – waiting for the government to impose the rules – could be even worse.
 
By OULA FARAWATI
 
newswebsites
R.R.

AMMAN, August 28, 2008 (MENASSAT) – After decades of tight government control on Jordan's media, a dozen news websites have broken the mold and are now providing Jordanians with the kind of on-the-spot news and analysis that is missing from the mainstream newspapers pages or the state-controlled radio and TV.

But these websites are now facing an unlikely kind of control, from the Jordan Press Association (JPA).

"This is only a pre-emptive measure," JPA council member Majid Tobeh told MENASSAT.

"If we don't do something, we give the government an excuse to impose its own regulations and bylaws on these websites… We definitely don't want that," he added.

The JPA council invited several owners/chief editors of news websites for meetings aiming to compose a code of honor that will govern the work of these websites.

Tobeh insists that this code will be decided in collaboration with the websites concerned. But he firmly believes that if it is left to the government to regulate the online media, its freedoms will be curtailed even more.

Indeed, in September, the state's Press and Publication Department announced it was imposing its "supervision" on electronic media, thus making them fall under the jurisdiction of the Press and Publication Law.

The move was met by an outcry from the Jordanian press corps, who said the step was "backward" and was meant to limit the freedom of online media.

That government motion has since been stopped by a royal order. King Abdullah, meeting with then-JPA president Tareq Momani, was quoted as saying that he instructed the government to withdraw the motion.

"But we still need to organize the work of these sites to avoid any future government intervention," said Tobeh.

But the people behind Jordan's websites are not all convinced that self-regulation is the way to go.

Hashem Khaldi, editor in chief of Sarayanews.com, refused to attend the meetings, saying such a code of honor can be used politically to put pressure on online journalists.

"We need assurances that the JPA is neutral and will not allow this code of honor to become a trap," he told MENASSAT.

Khaldi believes that the government shouldn't impose any regulations on online media. Like most news websites in Jordan, Sayaranews.com has already anticipated such a move by basing their servers in the U.S. in order to circumvent any local censorship.

"I believe that if the government could have done something to limit the freedom of [news] websites, it wouldn't have hesitated. But it knows very well that these sites are not registered in Jordan and their servers are not here," he said.

But the government can still block access to these websites locally. One of the most famous websites that was blocked from public access in Jordan is Arab Times, which published harsh comments and news about the Jordanian royal family and top government officials.

However, Khaldi believes that any government move will only win him fame outside Jordan.

"If they block my website, they will prevent some 50,000 Jordanians from accessing it and win me 200,000 readers from abroad, while running the risk of being called backward and unprofessional. The government is not stupid enough to do that."

Ghaith Adayleh, editor in chief of Khaberni.com, did respond to the JPA call and attended the meeting.

"My attendance doesn't mean I approve of the move. My position is clear: Khaberni will only sign the code of honor if all major news sites approved it," he said.

Adayleh believes that if only a few sites agree to the code of honor and others don't, those who do will lose all credibility in the eye of the public.

As MENASSAT was interviewing Adayleh, he was busy sorting through a flood of comments on Khaberni's scoop of the day; a story about the chief of the Royal Court, Bassem Awadallah's involvement in a company that is being sued in California for human trafficking.

"I have received numerous phone calls asking to remove the story. But I won't do it."

Soon after, commenting on this story was disabled, and a note was posted on the site saying that "due to the intensity of comments and the fact that a lot of these comments crossed the line, commenting has been disabled." It also said that the site had been targeted by several hacking attempts.

Sometimes, articles are removed altogether, Recently, ammonnews.net pulled an opinion article about the same Awadallah after it received hundreds of scathing comments about the Royal Court chief.

According to Tobeh, the code of honor will help to create a general ethical framework for these websites.

"We want to tackle the editorial policy of these websites so that they avoid profanity and personal attacks and attacks against the national unity," he said.

Despite the sites' resistance, seasoned media expert Yihya Shuqair said it was in their best interest to commit to a code of honor.

"We need to maintain the credibility of these sites. I advise every media outlet to commit to a form of self-regulation. This is not done because of fear of governments, but to increase credibility in front of the public," he told MENASSAT.

According to Shuqair, media credibility relies on a triangle of professionalism, regulation and ethics.

"If any is missing, then the formula will be broken. We have to preserve a balance between professionalism, ethics and the people's right to know."