Jordan Continues to Enforce Anachronistic Censorship Laws

Jordan is no stranger to the governmental enforcement of book censorship or the public censure and criticism expressed by various communities and organizations regarding this issue — an issue which has become increasingly prevalent and apparent in light of citizens’ easier access to information on the internet, more widely available print on demand books, and, in general, a more globally connected population. Since the institution of new press and publication laws in 1998, the Jordanian government has been scrutinized by advocacy groups for their restrictive treatment of freedom of speech and expression. As Hannly Megally, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, noted in 1998 when the laws were enacted:

This law is an anachronism. News and other information from around the world is freely available on the Internet, but the government is attempting to censor what local newspapers can publish, and control what books and foreign newspapers Jordanians can read.

The anachronistic law in question required all publishers, both domestic and international, to submit physical copies of their books to the Ministry of Information for review and approval prior to publication and circulation in Jordan. Although the laws were amended in 2012 to accommodate for technological advancements and this specific clause was removed — a sign that the government had perhaps relinquished its tight rein on the presses — Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh reports 52 books have been banned by the government , since the beginning of 2014 and that the number of banned books will continue to rise as new publications challenge the boundaries of what the Jordanian government deems appropriate. Although there are no formal statistics or governmental documentation regarding just how many books continued to be censored each year, independent research has suggested that it is anywhere between 50-100 titles.

From politics and history to religion and sex, any materials that portray Jordan, its government, or the royal family in a “controversial” manner are immediately flagged and in many cases outright banned from being printed and distributed. Ayman Otoum, author of the highly disputed and banned book Hadith al-Junud, which recounted the events of the 1986 Yarmouk University protests and the death three students, notes, “Sometimes the truth hurts. If you don’t present it in a way that is acceptable to the authorities, it becomes a target for repression.”

The problem that the Jordanian government is now facing, though, is that it is increasingly harder for them to continue to regulate and censor materials that are both being printed domestically and imported into the country because of the easier access that Jordanian citizens have to the internet and online retailers. Earlier this year, Quartz’s Gideon Lichfield reported that online bookseller Jamalon would be launching a specific “Banned Book” section to provide a retail space for authors like Otoum to sell their books.

Ala Alsallal, the founder of Jamalon, proudly announced that in its four years Jamalon has never pulled a book from its digital shelves although the request has been explicitly request repeatedly by the government: “We have 10 million titles, and there are 50,000 new English books and 2,000 new Arabic books published every month. We cannot handle the filtering.”

Alsallal’s goal is not only to bank on the controversial status that these books receive and to help authors get their books into Jordanian citizens’ hands, but ultimately to demonstrate the futility of the government trying to regulate every book that makes its way into the country. Furthermore, with the wider adoption of eBooks and digital reading, the type of regulation that the government has been implementing to protect and maintain what El-Shamayleh identifies as “security and status quo” will only get harder — a point repeatedly noted by groups working to stop the explicit oppression of freedom of speech and expression.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!