Island of Complacency
By Ruth Bender and Zahra Hankir
In a country where 94% of Journalists practice self-censorship, is the Jordanian blogosphere a portal for alternative freedom of expression?
The streets of Amman are tidy, calm, and collected. Its bullet-hole-free buildings are only sometimes adorned with flattering headshots of one figurehead: King Abdallah. The city, and indeed the country, is seemingly pronounced with a quiet political stability, not fathomable in some neighboring states. Nonetheless, there is a persistent feeling that much lies beneath: that numerous issues bubbling below the surface are yet to be exposed.
Regardless, the media landscape of the country remains unchallenging and is heavily burdened with state-and-self-censorship, common to most Arab states. Enter the Arab blogosphere, where the tens of thousands have turned to the Internet to voice otherwise silent opinions and oftentimes, to challenge the state.
But this seems not to be the case for the Jordanian blogosphere, argues new media analyst and Cairo-based blogger, Mahmoud Salem. “Every blogosphere that was created in the Arab world was the product of necessity for its founders… to have a zone where they can practice their usually stifled freedom of speech.” However, the realm of Jordanian blogs — composed of over 10,000 blogs, some say — appears less willing to address pressing national issues. Indeed, in Jordanian blogs the so-called red lines of the monarchy, national security, and national unity are rarely touched upon, unlike in those of Egypt, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.
Though the blogosphere is rich in creativity, it does “not tackle any serious problems of Jordan… and seems to concentrate mainly on the daily life of Amman,” Salem continues. In a sense, says Salem, it is as if deeper social, economic, and political problems don’t actually exist. Among these issues are tribalism, immigrant issues, a rise in cost of living, the lack of political representation or activism in general. “These are matters that deserve tackling,” but no one appears to be delving into them, says Salem.
Minding red lines
Lina Ejeilat, 25, stumbles when it comes to this dilemma. Sitting in Books@Café, a popular cyber cafe in Amman, she locates the problem in the “culture of complacency” present in Jordanian society. “Most don’t necessarily feel the need for more press freedom,” she says, “Jordan is the stable island in the region and people value this stability.”
A trained engineer, Lina shifted her career to journalism recently. Today, she writes for the English-language JO magazine and is one of the most active Jordanian bloggers. She started in 2005, the year the blogosphere witnessed a boom due to the terrorist attacks on several hotels in the capital, which caused 60 deaths.
Despite the rising interest in expressing personal reflections to the public, bloggers have not yet dared to venture out of their safety net of representing society without seriously questioning it. “Even though there is no official state regulation of Internet content, there are very few bloggers who have pushed the barriers,” says Sawsan Zaidah, Radio Manager of Ammannet, the first Jordanian online radio station.
Analysing the blogosphere from an outsider’s perspective, Salem believes the self-censorship problem is anchored in the fear of authority. “Underneath there is a serious uneasiness regarding the security apparatus,” he notes.
A solitary voice
Editor-in-chief of albawaba.com, 47-year-old Mohammed Omar is one of the few who has dared push the envelope. Despite the fact that to this day, the most popular blogs are in English, Omar pens in Arabic, aiming for a local audience as opposed to an international one. He started collecting personal reflections about Jordanian society in 2007, commenting on his bipolar disorder, divorce, and experiences with a bisexual woman. His individual approach to writing about social issues achieved him over 3,000 visits per day, suggesting that the people appreciated his frankness.
Yet, Mohammed silenced his own voice recently, feeling the need to protect his family. “I felt like I reached a point where I had to censor myself and that was the turning point to make me want to stop. If I can’t be free, then what’s the point?” Indeed, and as Lina affirms, the impact of cultural self-censorship on blogging appears to have caused many to hesitate when it comes to addressing the more taboo issues.
Searching for civic identity
Like in Europe and other parts of the region, the emergence of citizen journalism, expressed in the form of blogs, is seen as a reaction to professional journalism. “Our role is to challenge the mainstream media and to progressively tap into public opinion,” Lina believes. “But of course you have to be smart about it,” she adds. “Criticizing everything and everyone isn’t the solution.”
Nevertheless, at least one famous case has been able to break the self-imposed silence of the media in Jordan. In September last year, Hussain Tamini was able to attract the media’s attention on the critical situation of Jordanian hospitals when he uploaded a post about his 9-day long search for his father, who was injured in a car accident.
According to Mohammed, the problem is that the average Jordanian citizen is too detached from politics, making the concept of citizen journalism impossible. There are seemingly few opportunities for public participation in Jordanian politics. When it comes to the future of press freedom in Jordan, he is skeptical. “We can’t have any expectations as we never know what will happen,” he says.
But there are additional challenges that would need to be addressed if blogging is to become more far-reaching. According to opennet.net, only 12 percent of Jordanians enjoy Internet access, and connectivity prices remain relatively high, alienating large portions of the population. Noting this phenomenon, Salem stresses that the majority of Jordanian bloggers are upper to middle-class, making their “knowledge of poor Jordanians limited at best.”
However, the continuous evolution of the blogosphere gives Lina hope for the future. “Years ago, I would still have to explain what a blog was,” she says. Today, despite the obvious self-imposed limitations and challenges, the increasing popularity of blogs might indeed spark more critical debate among young voices in a country stereotypically considered complacent.
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