Statement

Jordan: Website blocking order must be revoked immediately

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ARTICLE 19

06 Jun 2013

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Earlier this week, the Jordanian authorities ordered the blocking of nearly 300 local news websites, which had failed to register with the Culture Ministry under the country’s Press Law. ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the order and calls on the Jordanian authorities to revoke it immediately. Jordan must also repeal recently amended legislation giving the authorities greater powers to control freedom of expression online in breach of international human rights law.

On 1 June, Fayez Shawabkeh, the Director General of the Press and Publication Department of the Culture Ministry issued a decision which read that “Based on article (49), paragraph (G) of the Press and Publication Law No. 8 for the year 1998 and its amendments, I have decided to block the news websites in the attached list as of date” and which instructed the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) to block some 300 websites.

ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the order which clearly violates international standards on freedom of expression. The order is based on amendments to the Press and Publications Law, adopted in 2012, which requires “electronic publications” of news, investigations, articles or comments about the domestic or external affairs of the Kingdom”  to register and obtain a licence from the Press and Publications Department. Article 49 of the Law further prohibits the owner and editor-in-chief of an electronic publication from publishing comments deemed “irrelevant” or “unrelated” to the published article.

ARTICLE 19 reminds the Jordanian government that under international law, all restrictions on freedom of expression must meet the requirements of the three part test under Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. The test stipulates that the restrictions must be set in the law, pursue a legitimate aim and be necessary and proportionate in pursuit of these aims.

We also recall that licensing and registration requirements for the print media are considered illegitimate under international standards, as they impose a barrier to the exercise of freedom of expression which is not strictly necessary. Even a registration requirement (a mere notification to the authorities of the establishment of a new publication) is increasingly viewed as unjustified. By contrast, international law permits governments to licence broadcasters, recognising that the supply of broadcasting frequencies is limited and that a mechanism is necessary to allocate them across different operators, in order to create a diverse and pluralistic broadcasting landscape.

The internet may be seen as occupying an intermediate position between the print media and broadcasting. In common with broadcasting, every operator on the internet requires the use of one or more unique addresses, similar to the frequencies of a radio or television station. But in common with the print media, there are no limits to the numbers of internet websites that can exist alongside each other. The supply of potential website addresses is infinite, while the number of potential broadcasting frequencies is not. Hence, ARTICLE 19 believes that given the unlimited availability of addresses, there is no justification for requirement of licensing of websites. 

The special rapporteurs on freedom of expression confirmed this position in their 2005 Joint

Declaration where they stated that “no one should be required to register with or obtain permission from any public body to operate an Internet service provider, website, blog or other online information dissemination system, including Internet broadcasting. This does not apply to registration with a domain name authority for purely technical reasons or rules of general application which apply without distinction to any kind of commercial operation.” They also stated that the body responsible for allocating website addresses should be independent of government and other interests.

Further, in his May 2011 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has also explicitly said that licensing and registration requirements “cannot be justified in the case of the Internet.” The UN Human Rights Committee recently asserted in its General Comment no. 34 that general state systems of registration or licensing of journalists, “whether on the Internet or elsewhere”, were incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Under its international commitments, Jordan is obliged to respect these standards in its domestic legislation.

ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on the Jordanian authorities to:

  • Revoke the website blocking order immediately
  • Repeal the provisions of the Press Law which are incompatible with Jordan’s obligations under the ICCPR.

ARTICLE 19 also notes that the UN Special Rapporteur has recommended that intermediaries should only implement restrictions on freedom of expression after judicial intervention. We therefore encourage Jordanian ISPs to refrain from implementing the blocking order, since it clearly has not been made by a court in line with international standards on freedom of expression. At the same time, the authorities should not attempt to hold ISPs liable if they fail to implement the order.