Jordan's Fuzzy Definition Of Free Speech

Feb 25, 2015
Originally published on February 25, 2015 7:46 pm

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."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A week ago Sunday, when I was in Amman, Jordan, these two things happened. The minister of information told a conference on combating radicalization that freedom of expression can contribute to that effort. Meanwhile, in and Amman military courtroom, a man was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for a Facebook post. His offense was insulting a friendly country. The information minister, Mohammad Al-Momani spent years studying at Rice University in Houston, so he knows what Americans think of as free expression. I asked him how he thinks of it.

MOHAMMAD AL-MOMANI: We think to have an open space for opinion and counter opinion, this will strengthen the value of the society. And this will make the society stronger in resisting and in being immune from these terrorist and extremist ideology. That's why we are actually keen on protecting that space and making sure that there's freedom of expression, there's freedom of opinion allowed, of course, under the umbrella of law.

SIEGEL: The idea of a free space and free discourse sounds very familiar to Americans, and it sounds right. But on the other hand, you speak of the law. On the very day that you spoke of the value of a free press, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood gets jailed a year and a half for a Facebook post in which he insulted the United Arab Emirates, a friendly government. Is that consistent with freedom of expression?

AL-MOMANI: I think it is. I'll tell you why. First, our laws clearly says you cannot insult a country that we have good relationship with, and we have high interest with. 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 quarter of a million of Jordanians working there.

SIEGEL: But if he had angered the United Arab Emirates - he was saying they have a pro-Zionist foreign policy and things like that...

AL-MOMANI: Even worse.

SIEGEL: ...And they foster extremism. And you're saying if that would jeopardize the jobs that Jordanians have in the UAE and the Emirates, then it's a danger to Jordan's economy.

AL-MOMANI: Exactly. And who decides on this? Not the government of Jordan. It's a judge who will look into this.

SIEGEL: But a military judge in this case.

AL-MOMANI: A civilian judge in a military court. If this was freedom of expression, he could have voiced his opinion without actually insulting another country, jeopardizing the jobs of other Jordanians.

SIEGEL: Free expression is conditional on national interest. And Jordan'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 there are lots of people writing in new media who are willing to step on them.

LINA EJEILAT: Last week we had a piece about school curriculum 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.

SIEGEL: That's Lina Ejeilat, who edits an online magazine called 7iber. Its small newsroom is 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, the editor in chief must be a member of the Jordanian Press Association, and that requirement rules out Lina Ejeilat.

EJEILAT: The law is funny. You know, you could go to grad school, get your degree in journalism - you know, I teach at the Jordan Media Institute. We have an MA program in journalism. But I cannot be a member of the Association. I mean, right now, after we got licensed, I need a six-month 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.

SIEGEL: Before her magazine was licensed, 7iber, like other Jordanian websites, was shut down by the government.

EJEILAT: And we switched to an alternative domain, and we took a moral stance against the law, and we were trying everything we can 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. Licensing is a form of soft censorship. But eventually - you know, last year we got blocked repeatedly. So three times in two months - every time we set up an alternative domain, it gets blocked. And then we were taken to court for running an unlicensed operation. And finally, we had to make a choice which is, do 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, you know? So we got licensed.

SIEGEL: But are you a member of the Jordanian Press Association?

EJEILAT: Press Accociation? No. Nope.

SIEGEL: Are you allowed to be editor of a website if you're not?

EJEILAT: No, I'm not. I'm not. So we actually had to hire somebody new to be our editor in chief.

SIEGEL: Someone who belongs to the Jordanian Press Association.

EJEILAT: Somebody who belongs to the JPA 'cause that was the only way.

SIEGEL: So on the masthead, she's the editor-in-chief?

EJEILAT: Yeah. In practice, I'm still editor-in-chief. But yeah, on paper it's different.

SIEGEL: You went to Columbia Journalism School for graduate school. You could work elsewhere. I mean, you're from here, but you could go work elsewhere. And let's say this isn't the most favorable media environment you could possibly choose to work in. So why do you work here?

EJEILAT: OK. I'm going to sound really cheesy right now, but I think we have - this is a place where there's so much that needs to be done in terms of content and stories. And it's a small team we have here, but we're very idealistic. Sometimes we sound really cynical in our conversations, but in reality, you know, we really feel that there are so many issues that need to be talked about and so many stories that need to be done and so many injustices that need to be exposed. And sometimes - you know, we do small stories sometimes or publish small pieces. And when we see the reaction and we see that here is a thirst - that there's a need for more of this content, I just feel like it's rewarding to be here.

SIEGEL: Lina Ejeilat who, for the record, is not in the editor-in-chief of the Jordanian online magazine 7iber. Tomorrow, a member of Parliament whose party has the biggest number of seats there - two. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.