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The EU this week announced a new €9m package supporting media and civil society in Jordan. The aid, however, comes the same week as Jordan's King Abdullah signed off on a controversial media law restricting online expression, raising new concerns about his commitment to reform and the EU’s willingness to back his efforts. In the statement announcing the new support package, the EU made no mention whatsoever of the restrictive new law; instead it praised Jordan’s ongoing willingness to back civil society: “The role of civil society in development and in the country's reform process is encouraged by the Royal Court and the government.”
The new law requires electronic publications to obtain a license from the Department of Press and Publication and grants authorities the power to block or close down unlicensed sites. Websites will also have to appoint a chief editor who is a member of the Jordanian Press Council and editors/owners of websites will be held accountable for all comments posted on their website. Though ostensibly aimed at blocking pornographic sites, the law has been widely condemned in Jordan as an attempt by the authorities to pose new restrictions on free speech. The law prompted a collective attempt by Jordanian civil society to digitally protest widening government censorship, with many websites taking part in an Internet blackoutat the end of August.
Censorship is not a recent phenomenon in Jordan. The country is rated only ‘Partly Free’ in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2011 (it’s printed press is already classed as ‘Not Free’ in Freedom in the World 2012), and Human Rights Watch condemned the latest step. “The government is already using existing laws to go after opponents and critics…The state should be rolling back those laws, not extending them to online expression,” said the watchdog.
In this context, the EU’s ongoing policy towards the Royal Court is becoming increasing questionable. Although European aid for the country’s civil society is to be applauded – and indeed the decision to announce new support for the media sector the same week as the new law could have marked an important statement of intent – to actually praise the reform effort and civil society engagement at the same time as new restrictions were being imposed appears ill-timed.
Whilst support for civil society and independent media is a necessity of any meaningful reform process - as European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, recognized when announcing the package – the latest steps suggest that meaningful reform and the provision of public space for civil society remains a challenging goal. The EU should therefore dial back its praise for the reform process. With Jordan undergoing particularly turbulent times in the face of growing political and economic discontent and a volatile regional environment, Europe risks repeating mistakes of the past.
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