Law unlikely to work

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Jordan’s registered media outlets will be soon welcoming a new group: news websites.

According to the amendments approved by parliament, websites can, if they voluntarily choose, be registered as media outlets and will be officially accredited as such by all relevant governmental branches.

But why would an owner of a news website voluntarily register and fall under various legal restrictions, when the site can be immune from all legal controls if it remains unregistered?

Before answering this question, it is important to understand the distinction. Jordan’s Press and Publications Law holds media published in Jordan accountable by a piece of legislation that includes fines and other restrictions (bar imprisonment). Publication on websites is considered where the server is located. Since Jordanian servers are very expensive (as well as restrictive) most of Jordan’s nearly 100 news websites are published abroad, where the costs is competitive and restrictions practically none?istent.

This issue perplexed the media strategy commission, which reached the conclusion that the only way to manage Jordanian websites is through self-regulation. But since self-regulation requires a high level of discipline and collective interest, the government felt that there must be a way around this and "voluntary" registration became the solution.

So back to the reason why a Jordanian website whose server is in Holland or California would choose to voluntarily register in Jordan.

According to government officials, news websites that agree to voluntarily register will be considered "legal" and will be awarded various kinds of perks, such as being invited to government press conferences and have access to officials. Furthermore, registered websites will become eligible to receive paid public commercials and notices.

It is still unknown how exactly the government will distinguish deserving sites to post paid ads on. Will registered sites also be required to place Google analytics code so that the government will have a reliable source of online traffic?

Another question that will be asked is whether high traffic alone will be enough to place any ad on a website. Some news sites might be closer to yellow journalism than serious journalism. Will they be given preference if they have traffic, which might come because they publish sensational videos and photos of attractive women?

Finally, it is also unclear whether the government can afford to post ads on the nearly 100 existing news sites if they all choose to register.

Legal experts have been arguing about the status of sites that choose to register and those that refuse. Government spokesmen insist that they will only be liable to pay financial fines and not imprisonment, because the Press and Publications Law does not stipulate prison punishment, and websites will not be held accountable by any other law.

The director of the Centre for the Defence of Freedom of Journalists, Nidal Mansour, disagrees, saying that at present, more than 100 cases have been raised against websites using a host of laws, including the Penal Code, and the State Security Court. There is nothing that can prevent the government from continuing this process in the future.

So far, a dozen or so news websites publicly declared their agreement to voluntarily register, motivated mostly by the prospective government revenues. Government officials feel that these are the most troubling sites and therefore if they agree to some sort of government oversight, this will reduce some of the extreme political language on some sites, as well as put an end to complaints against website owners using unethical tactics to draw revenues using blackmail against businesses that might be afraid ?f negative reporting.

While Jordan’s current experiment will be watched closely by many countries, it is unclear if it will succeed in curtailing existing technology or, more importantly, new formats and platforms.

Government and technology have been in a cat and mouse race for years and this race is unlikely to end with one piece of legislation or with willing website owners.

The more difficult group, however, will be non-organised media owners, the public at large. As citizen journalism grows, it is highly unlikely that governments in Jordan or anywhere else will be able to stay ahead of determined people. Certainly not in the age of the Arab Spring for which people power using hand-held technologies succeeded where governments with powerful assets failed.

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