Who censures the censors?

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Quietly and without any fanfare, the decades-long pre-censorship laws on books in Jordan were scrapped earlier this month.

The official gazette published an amendment to the regulation which ends the work of the government censors. Marwan Qteishat, head of the Press and Publications Department, said in media reports that Jordan is now like most other countries in which publishers are allowed to publish whatever they wish without pre-censorship. The public at large is free, of course, to fight in courts any book it deems violates them or their community.

The de facto cancellation of pre-censorship of books and newspapers doesn’t mean, however, that restrictions and censorship are totally banned. And Jordanian reform activists aren’t celebrating yet. The abolition of the office of book censorship doesn’t remove from the legal books the many laws and regulations which can be used against publishers, journalists or even members of parliament for expressing a point of view.

The cancellation of pre-censorship of books follows the cancellation of pre-censorship of published news, approved recently in the much debated Press and Publications Law, which failed to totally ban the imprisonment of a Jordanian for expressing his or her opinion.

It is not hard to understand this decision in light of the information revolution. It is hardly logical that in 2007, any country in the world actually has staff read book texts in order to allow them to be published or imported while they can be sent by e-mail, carried in a tiny USB or posted on line.

Two leading publishers interviewed by the independent radio station AmmanNet expressed serious concern that the situation will not be much better.

"While we are happy to be rid of government censors, we are now totally unprotected from the whims of Jordanian society," Elias Farkouh of the progressive Azzmenah Publication house said. He and others are worried that as bad as the government censors were, the society at large in Jordan might be less tolerant. And without any serious legal protection, any person or group can easily file a case and most likely win.

Rifqa Dudeen, whose book "The tale of an Arab youth in America" was released as a result of the cancellation of the censorship regulations, also said she is worried about the irrationality of some forces in Jordan. Privately, publishers are hinting that they might one day wish the censorship were back because once the government approved a book, no one could sue them.

The former censors, feeling this problem facing publishers have in fact said that they are willing to give consultation to publishers on a completely voluntary basis. No suggestion was made to lessen the defamation laws or guarantee freedom of expression and literary thought and work.

The societal weakness that the cancellation of censorship seems to have exposed explains much about the internal workings of the country. It also explains why public reform calls are often contradicted by actions and at time rescinded without much explanation. It brings to light one more time the statement made by columnist Fahed Fanek who argued that in Jordan the King is more progressive than the government, the government more liberal than Parliament and the Parliament more open-minded than the public.

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