x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Jordan eases restrictions on protest gatherings

Protests will no longer need government permission, while restrictions on website access for government employees at work is also lifted.

AMMAN // Bowing to public pressure to revoke restrictions on public gatherings, Jordan's government says protests will no longer need government permission. It has also lifted a six-month ban that restricted website access to government employees at work.

Jordan's interior minister, Saed Hayel Srour, said yesterday he has recommended the change on public assembly to the cabinet, which is expected to endorse it quickly. He said protesters would still have to inform authorities of any gathering two days in advance to ensure public safety, but that the government would no longer interfere in such matters.

In street protests during the past five weeks, Jordanians demanded that the government lift restrictions on free speech and assembly. Jordan's King Abdullah II responded by promising wider freedoms and changes to pertinent laws.

On Saturday the new 27-member cabinet, sworn in on February 9, ended the ban imposed in August that denied government workers access to many news websites.

The measures were widely applauded by website owners as a positive development in a country that had its share of rumbling unrest and protests inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

"We believe that the measure is a step in the right direction," said Basil Okoor, the co-owner of ammonnews, a popular news website that was blocked to government employees.

The previous government of prime minister Samir Rifai imposed the ban, claiming workers were wasting time on the sites. According to a study conducted by the government, public employees spent two hours each day online, mostly browsing websites that were not relevant to their jobs. The study estimated that each hour of internet browsing cost the government about 70 million dinars (Dh359m) a year.

Owners of news website and media advocates complained that the ban was an attempt to silence them.

Mr Okoor said: "Lifting the ban rectifies mistakes committed by the previous government. But what the media needs right now is more openness, transparency and freedom. Dealing with the media in a security mindset and meddling in its affairs can no longer work.

"The new generation of youth now depends on new media like Facebook and Twitter. The government needs to respect its intelligence and provide it with impartial information. It needs to allow the media to work in an atmosphere of freedom".

Just before the new government was formed, ammonnews, the country's first news website launched in 2006, was hacked and shut down for a day after publishing a statement critical of the government and a member of the royalty. The site accused the security service of trying to silence it, which the government denied.

The appointment of Taher Adwan, a former editor-in-chief of Arab Al Yawm, an independent daily based in Amman, as state minister of media affairs and communication is seen as a sign of progress.

The daily is more aggressive than other local dailies. "His appointment brought us a sigh of relief," said Mr Okoor. "It remains yet to be seen if the government is serious about matching its words by action since it was just formed."

The centre for defending the freedom of journalists, in Amman, welcomed the government's move.

Nidal Mansour, the centre's head, said it was a step in the right direction. "In order for the media to improve it should be independent and away from any interventions."

But Daoud Kuttab, head of Ammannet.net, another news website, credited the Egyptians and the Tunisians for the government's new interest in freedom of expression.

He said the media need not thank the government. "We are not thankful to anybody, because it is our right and not a gift from any party."

smaayeh@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting from Associated Press