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Quietly and without any fanfare, the decades-old censorship laws on the 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.
The head of the department of press and publication, Marwan Qteishat, says in media reports that Jordan is now like most other countries in which publishers may print whatever they wish without any prior censorship. The public at large, of course, is free to fight in court against any book they deem violates them or their community.
Jordanian reform activists aren't celebrating yet, however. The de facto cancellation of the censor's reviewing of books and newspapers doesn't mean that restrictions and censorship are totally banned. Many other laws and regulations which can be used against publishers, journalists or even members of parliament for expressing a point of view, remain on the books.
Two Islamic MPs were arrested and stripped of their parliamentary seats after attending the wake of the al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Mussab Zarqawi. Former Jordanian cabinet minister Adnan Abu Odeh was saved at the last moment from arrest as a result of a citizen filing a complaint against him for statements he made on Al-Jazeera TV about the 1970 conflict between the Palestinians and Jordan.
Even Prince Hassan didn't manage to get his opinions across when the tapes of the interview he gave to Al-Jazzera were confiscated. A former member of parliament is still being held in jail on charges of defamation.
Just two weeks ago the Jordanian weekly Al Majd was prevented from publication because of an article that didn't please certain members of Jordanian officialdom. While it is not referred to as censorship, there is no doubt that the powers that be in the security forces were mysteriously made aware of the content of the paper and asked the printers not to allow publication unless the article was removed.
The cancellation of book censorship follows the cancellation of censorship of published news approved recently in the much-debated Press and Publications Law. This law failed to totally ban the imprisonment of Jordanians for expressing their opinions.
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 employs staff to read books and ban their publication when these same books can be sent by email, carried on a tiny memory stick, or posted on-line.
In practice, however, 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.
Farkouh and others are worried that as bad as the government censors were, Jordanian society at large might be less tolerant. And without any serious legal protection, any person or group can easily file a lawsuit 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 social and tribal forces in Jordan. Privately publishers are hinting that they might one day wish censorship back because once the government approved a book, no one could then sue them.
IN RECOGNITION of this problem facing publishers, the former censors have offered to give consultations to publishers on a completely voluntary basis. No suggestion has been 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 Jordan. It also explains why public reform calls are often contradicted by actions taken and at times rescinded without much explanation.
It brings to light one more time the statement made by Jordanian columnist Fahd Faneq, who has argued that in Jordan the king is more progressive than the government, the government more liberal than parliament, and parliament more openminded than the public.
The writer directs the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah. www.daoudkuttab.com.