Jenin is being bombed, the situation in the Middle East is dire, the Jordanian economy is in decline, the cost of living is through the roof, 40% of Jordanians plan to leave their country and companies are also packing up and leaving because of the government’s haphazard attitude to investment and finance.
But luckily for the Jordanian government, there is a more immediate crisis that needs to be addressed. Last week, it blocked the satire news site, AlHudood, of which I am the director and co-founder.
AlHudood publishes daily articles, produces podcasts and makes short films mocking the absurdities of life in the Arab world in a deadpan style inspired by The Onion. Recent articles include a piece about the Tunisian strongman Kais Saied condemning African immigrants for stealing jobs and spots on migrant boats from Tunisians, another about the recent Quran burning in Sweden by an Iraqi man (headlined “Swedish right wing applauds Quran burning and suggests the migrant burns himself with it next time”), a piece mocking the plethora of influencers relentlessly promoting life in Dubai and a news article about how the two strongmen fighting a civil conflict in Sudan have agreed to create a humanitarian corridor for the souls of dead civilians.
But none of this — or any of our previous articles satirizing the situation in Jordan or the excesses of the royal family — earned the government’s ire. Instead, the proverbial straw appears to have been our taking a jab at the recent highly publicized and perfectly curated lavish royal wedding of the nation’s crown prince.
We launched AlHudood in Jordan almost exactly 10 years ago. We (unwisely) tried to register it there, as we didn’t have the reach or money to set it up outside, and we were obviously (and luckily) denied registration. Had we registered, our organization would have had to abide by Jordan’s Publication Law, which would criminalize a significant portion of our articles.
Before 2012, the Jordanian authorities had to work harder to charge journalists and outspoken critics. They used defamation laws, allowing ministers and others in positions of authority who had been criticized in the press to sue journalists, often leading to their detention. They also used anti-terrorism laws as a catch-all for myriad offenses.
In 2012, with terrorism concerns booming in the region, they changed the existing laws, which, I should emphasize, were more than enough to prosecute Islamic State group-style terrorists. The changes were intended to make the law more amenable to prosecuting journalists, adding charges like “disturbing relations with neighboring countries” to terrorism crimes to be tried by the State Security Court. As a consequence of that, an article, say, criticizing Saudi Arabia, which provides Jordan with copious financial aid, can be considered terrorism. With our work satirizing Jordan, its neighbors, allies and everyone else, we were very exposed.
We moved AlHudood to the U.K. and built a regional team covering regional politics, and we were out of Jordan’s direct hands. We have no bylines in the magazine and no one is officially working for us. Not only does that mean the team is safer because they aren’t publicly known, but, because it isn’t as direct a clash with authorities, it’s less personal. Instead of the government thinking that a particular individual believes they are more powerful than the powers-that-be, they can see it as a foreign publication that isn’t relevant. It’s less embarrassing for them and safer for us at the same time.
Another thing that protected us a bit was the fact that we truly were non-partisan, so while we did write on the failures and the corruption of governments, we talked also about the inefficiency and the similar failures of whatever opposition the country allows to be in place. We satirized Saudi war crimes in Yemen as much as Iran’s in Syria and elsewhere. And we wrote about every one of the myriad factions that exist in Lebanese politics. This allowed us to be seen less as an adversary and more of an annoying headache they couldn’t get rid of.
Normally, Jordanian intelligence is quite deft and smooth in its operation. It is potentially the most efficient and well-funded public body (we have no way of verifying this), but this time it wasn’t.
When the authorities sought to introduce censorship laws in 2012, they pushed a campaign to censor internet porn, to protect our children from the perversions that can be found in that dark domain. In addition to agitating for the cause with the public, they painted the journalists who were against it as perverts who just couldn’t do without their daily dose of porn.
So when, in an absolute shocker of a move, people erupted in the streets with signs demanding censorship, the government had no choice but to yield to their overwhelming demands for propriety and virtue, and introduced the law. The following week, they used the law to block all publishers not registered with the government.
Today, though readers can’t read the perverted views of government critics, they are able to comfortably satisfy their porn fetishes without any restrictions, and we heard nothing more from the people behind the campaign after that day. I was among those who campaigned against the law, but I couldn’t but tip my hat to the smoothness of their operation.
We launched AlHudood in July 2013 (alas, we were blocked less than two weeks before our 10-year anniversary) and, wisely or unwisely, Jordan’s authorities left us to our own devices until last month. It took them a decade to actually go through the hassle of blocking us, a step they know can potentially cause a stir.
When we started, and as we were exploring where the line was, we took things slowly. In the first few weeks when we wrote about Jordan, we avoided naming officials altogether to avoid defamation laws, and we didn’t go near the royal family. We felt some freedom in writing for ourselves instead of clients and publishers, and the censorship felt less harsh because we were imposing it on ourselves.
Slowly, over the years, we pushed the limits, sneaking in officials’ names, writing more directly and pointing fingers more clearly, until for us those restrictions were gone. Wherever we felt something needed to be said, we pretty much said it. Our main act of self-censorship was trying to figure out a way to say what we wanted without causing undue offense. While I think the right to offend is a crucial freedom that we all should be able to have, I also believe it can detract from the point being made.
When the royal family appeared in the Pandora Papers with details like the king’s $100 million “resort-like mega mansion,” after having already appeared in the Paradise Papers a few years ago, we wrote the headline, “Royal Court profusely denies allegations from whatever leak comes out next.” When Saudi Arabia gave aid to Yemen after heavily bombarding it for years, we wrote the headline, “Saudi Arabia pays off $2 billion of invoices for 5,000 dead Yemeni children.” On Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, we wrote innumerable times and on many other unspeakable problems, but it was only now that we got blocked.
While we aren’t certain why we did get blocked, the chances are that it was because a few weeks ago we conducted special coverage of the event of the year — the Jordanian royal wedding, an incredible PR feat that echoed all over a world besotted by the event’s “importance” and glamor. It also was the largest event the crown prince had yet engaged in and the one in which he was seen most seriously, as the royal court sets to establish him in people’s minds as an eligible successor.
At a time when the Jordanian economy is struggling and people are barely able to pay bills, the lavish wedding did not feel appropriate. Year after year, the freedoms of Jordanians are being restricted and power is taken from them and handed over to the royal family. Celebrating the crown prince felt like cementing in people’s heads who their next autocrat is. So when the campaign to publicize the wedding came out nationally and internationally and was titled “We rejoice,” we launched a parallel campaign with a slogan that roughly translated and understood by most as “Rejoice, you underlings”, but the literal translation is “Rejoice, you dog”.
But why now? Why didn’t the articles about the king before cause this? We didn’t have any valid assumptions. Some thought it was because they want to keep the crown prince’s slate clean; others thought it was because it worked against a campaign they worked so hard on and for so long. Others thought that, as with anything else in Jordan, someone, whoever, got upset, and as the law allows them to, they blocked the site. They don’t need more; we can’t really know much more.
That is, until I received a call this week from a contact who claimed to have inside knowledge. Apparently, possibly, as there wasn’t an official announcement of our block and nor is there likely to be one, the authorities thought we did actually push the line because they believed that the word “dog” was directed at the crown prince and not the impoverished Jordanian citizen. As it turns out, it wasn’t that we pushed the line; it wasn’t that we broke laws. I was dumbfounded that what got us blocked was a misunderstanding of an obvious joke, rather than because of the joke itself, combined with absolute and unaccountable power.
It is worrying that the Jordanian authorities have now started to block not only news sites but also entertainment. But aside from the rights issue and the freedom of speech concerns, I worry about Jordan sinking further into its pit of mediocrity.
While Jordan, particularly Amman, has loads of creatives and some incredible talent, it is famous in the region for being boring. There is a cultural event or two a year, a few exhibitions, a few places to hang out after work and a handful of really good restaurants. But this isn’t just bad luck — it’s the unavoidable consequence of the systems that are in place.
Is it a part of Jordan’s core to be boring? Jordan has depended on its reputation as the inoffensive affable diplomatic neighbor to all countries. This has allowed it to be close to America as the buffer state protecting its ally in the region, Israel. It allows it to be the European Union’s center of operation in the region. It was even an interlocutor for Syria, except for a few years when it joined the majority of the world in an anti-Assad posture, before once again going with the new Arab imperative and normalizing relations as the world veered toward that new position.
Everything within Jordan reflects that desire not to offend. The education system is built to suppress free thought, and the laws are structured so as to suppress any challenge to any status quo — political or social.
The education system heavily favors the scientific stream (in high school, students taking the arts stream were labeled as the poor and less intelligent). So there is very little reading happening (I read my first full novel at age 19) and even less writing. Literature is a reflection of society, but in our region the arts have largely declined and continue to decline because of government policies that focus on science to keep people away from using their heads to question and think — a trend reflected in the quiescent media.
When I used to work in screenwriting before launching AlHudood, our scripts used to be cut and chopped and mutilated by the producers (the enforcers of censorship) to remove whatever was deemed problematic for the authorities or inappropriate for society. The mention of the government at times is problematic and, in a relatively conservative society, everything is inappropriate. We were left with bits and pieces of a script that didn’t reflect the place we lived in, something so government-approved it had no soul left in it.
The move to block our site felt somewhat ironic. This year, USAID, America’s foreign policy development arm, decided in a typically well-intentioned and pointless move to offer a $35 million grant to budding Jordanian media outlets. Working hard, and a year and a half into the project, their biggest struggle lies in finding any traces of media in the country. Media projects in Jordan are either state-funded, heavily state-leaning or clickbait publishers whose main advertising strategy is blackmailing companies not to publish any negative reports on them. While Jordan has massively relied on aid to solve its problems, it has also destroyed or disallowed any real media to develop, so money isn’t going to be the salve that allows a free press to blossom.
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