Jul 03 2013

Arabs need a First Amendment

Published by at 1:01 pm under Arab Issues,Articles,Jordan



By Daoud Kuttab

I thought I would use my column, which appears on US Independence Day, to celebrate one of America’s most valued contribution to the world: the First Amendment.

Here is the exact text of the amendment adopted in 1791 as part of 10 amendments that make up the US Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

At a time when religion is clearly the biggest obstacle to progress in the Arab world, it would be great to have a First Amendment-like clause in all Arab constitutions.

The failed first year of Muslim Brotherhood presidency in Egypt, the failure of Hamas Islamists in Gaza and the sectarianism rocking Syria, Iraq and Bahrain, to name a few Arab countries, are enough to make one dream of a governance structure in the Arab world that is not based on or involves religion or takes sides in a religious sectarian conflict.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution is also a great source of inspiration and support for freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right of people to hold peaceful protests.

Denying the legislature the chance to pass media-restrictive laws would go a long way in planting permanently the seeds of the right to freedom guaranteed in the 19th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.

With such a constitutional guarantee we would get to the end of a sad era in media-related laws that give governments monopoly over the airwaves, that place a restrictive protocol on newspapers and that licenses journalists through a close shop press syndicate.

Jordan’s Press and Publications Law, for example, was amended 12 times in as many years. The latest amendment produced a strange and unenforceable licensing procedure that does not exist even in the most oppressive regimes in the world. After the initial blockage of some 300 websites, the Press and Publications Department this week blocked another three sites, including the blogging site 7iber.com.

What is strange about the website licensing procedure is it vagueness and arbitrariness. The amendment to the Press and Publications Law states clearly that any website that deals with Jordanian news and opinions must be licensed. To be licensed the owner must name a journalist as its editor. Such a journalists needs to be a veteran (for at least four years) member of the press syndicate.

The Jordan Press Association admits only journalists who work for the printed media, as well as the official Petra news agency and editors at Jordan’s official radio and TV. More journalists in Jordan today, including those working for private radio, TV and online, do so without being allowed into this closed shop union.

When the head of the Press and Publications Department, Fayez Shawabkeh, was asked how he determines who should be licensed, he reflected the vagueness of the law. He said Google, social media sites and blogs are not required to register even though they deal with Jordanian news, as the law says.

When asked why 7iber was not blocked, he said he will check into the matter and sure enough, the next day he ordered its blocking. When asked why he blocked a blog, he insisted that a blog is an individual website and 7iber has more than one writer and therefore it falls, according to his interpretation, under the category of those that need to be licensed.

On the same day, Shawabkeh blocked for the third time ammannet’s mirror site. Within 10 minutes, a new mirror was up and running, making such attempts to muzzle the electronic media a laughing stock.

Such restrictions and arbitrariness, including the clause in the law that holds owners and editors responsible for comments, have brought condemnation to Jordan from local, regional and international human rights and media freedom organisations.

Some liberal Jordanian parliamentarians are now convinced that instead of amending this restrictive press law, the best way forward is to scrap it completely. Such ideas are encouraging, but are a long shot in a country in which the government feels that it has the rights and duty to control the free flow of information.

As American celebrates the 237th anniversary of its declaration of independence, it would be nice if some of its founding principles, such as freedom of religion and expression, as expressed in the First Amendment, were remembered, rather than some of its foreign policy blunders.

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