Earlier this month, Jordan’s Information Minister Mohammad Al-Momani told a conference that freedom of expression can contribute to stopping radicalization.
On the very same day, a military court in the capital Amman sentenced a man to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post that was seen as insulting a friendly country, the United Arab Emirates.
Momani spent years studying at Rice University in Houston, so he knows what Americans think of as free expression. But he sees it a little differently.
“We think to have an open space for opinion and counter-opinion, this will strengthen the value of the society,” he says in an interview. “This will make the society stronger in resisting and in being immune from these terrorist and extremist ideologies. That’s why we are actually keen on protecting that space and making sure there is freedom of expression, there’s freedom of opinion allowed, of course, under the umbrella of the law.”
The Jordanian man jailed for his Facebook post wrote, among other things, that the United Arab Emirates had a “pro-Zionist” foreign policy. The information minister defended the court’s decision to jail him.
“Our laws clearly say you cannot insult a country that we have a good relationship with,” he says. “His statement could have been said in a different way without insulting another country. So what he said is bad-mouthing another country that could have affected the well-being of almost a quarter of a million Jordanians working there” in the United Arab Emirates.
National Interest Trumps Free Speech
In Jordan, free expression is conditional on national interest. And the country’s national interests can clash with reporters’ interests on several counts.
Jordan is a monarchy with two wars on its borders — in Iraq and Syria. It has an unpopular but peaceful and discreet relationship with Israel. It is energy poor and has very high unemployment. Jobs in nearby countries and foreign assistance are vital.
So there are lots of toes to step on. And lots of people writing in new media who are willing to step on them.
“Last week we had a piece about school curricula in Jordan and how the state is always quick to criticize radical Islam, but then there are things in our school books that are very alarming,” says Lina Ejeilat, who edits an online magazine called 7iber (pronounced “Hebber”) from a small newsroom above a hip cafe in the center of Amman.
Jordan licenses newspapers, and since 2012, it has licensed news websites, too.
That means, for one thing, that the editor in chief must a member of the Jordanian Press Association. And Ejeilat does not belong.
“The law is funny. You know, you could go to grad school, get your degree in journalism … but I cannot be a member of the association,” she says. “After we got licensed, I need six months of training to become a member and after I become a member I need four years to be allowed to be editor-in-chief of a website or any other publication.”
Publications Shut Down
Before her magazine was licensed, 7iber, like a number of other Jordanian websites, was shut down by the government.
“We switched to an alternative domain and we took a moral stance against the law and we were trying everything we could to fight this law without giving in to the idea that you are supposed to get a license from the government to run a website,” she says.
“Licensing is a form of censorship, but eventually, last year, we got blocked repeatedly,” she adds. “We were taken to court for running an unlicensed operation and finally we had to make a choice, which is: did we want to dedicate all of our resources just to fighting the law or do we want to find a way to reach our audience?”
The magazine got licensed — but Ejeilat was not allowed to officially hold the top post. Instead, the magazine had to hire someone who was a member of the press association to hold the top editing title.
“In practice, I’m still editor-in-chief. But yes, on paper it’s different,” she says.
As a graduate of Columbia Journalism School in New York, Ejeilat could pursue other options outside Jordan. But she says she’s committed to working in her homeland.
“We really feel there are so many issues that need to be talked about, so many stories to be done and so many injustices that need to be exposed,” she says. “It’s rewarding to be here.”