AMMAN // If you are a government employee in Jordan, you may have to find a new location to catch up on online news. The government decided this month to block the access of its employees to 48 websites, including many local news websites. The move has raised questions about its intentions.
Public employees on average spend about two hours a day online, according to the results of a government study released this month. Each hour cost the government about 70 million dinars (Dh362.9m) a year. Public employees browsed 70 million websites during working hours, but only 13,000 of those sites were relevant to their jobs, the study said. "The government is not targeting specific websites. The ban included dailies' websites as well as the government's own news agency, Petra," Ali al Ayed, the minister of state for media affairs and communications, said last week.
"The decision is part of measures to boost the performance of public employees. Working hours should be spent in serving the public interest," he said. A study by the department of statistics this year showed that 54 per cent of Jordanian households have personal computers, but only 18 per cent are connected to the internet. With internet penetration in Jordan standing at 30 per cent, many government employees use office hours to surf the net.
Economists estimate that 500,000 people, or 40 per cent of the country's entire labour force, work in the public sector. Many are now unhappy with the government's decision to curtail their browsing. "We are against the move. The government is exaggerating," said Ahmed, an employee at the ministry of education who asked that his last name not be published. "It is a ridiculous. The employee does not spend all hours working strictly. If he has to fill out applications, he does not leave people waiting because he wishes to browse the internet. This would be a waste of time.
"I use the internet from home and work to check the latest news. We do not want to be left in the dark and find out what is happening around us later in the day." Some analysts, media experts and website publishers say the government ban on websites is intended to silence critics. "The decision is disastrous," said Saeda Kilani, the director of the Arab Archive Institute for Publishing Research, an Amman-based centre for media studies and human rights. "The government is targeting independent media. Improving employees' work ethic is not solved by preventing access to information."
Jordan prides itself as the first Arab country to introduce, in 2007, an access to information law. Its constitution also allows freedom of speech, but a press and publication law and other regulations are seen as a bid to restrict the work of journalists, among others. Still, the so-called new media have been booming in Jordan and there are now 130 news websites. Some of these sites provide a platform for critics of government policies, from increasing taxes to its staggering budget deficit to tackling corruption.
The website ban came as the government introduced last week a temporary law on cybercrimes, which includes restrictions on the freedom of expression. "Because we have a higher ceiling of freedom, this has upset the government. The only thing it can think of is how to restrict the freedom of expression," said Basil Akoor, the co-owner of ammonnews.net, a popular news website that was blocked to government employees.
"The dailies carry protocol news with no value. But we have covered diverse things ranging from public reaction to tax hikes, to teachers' strikes demanding their own professional association to labourers asking for better wages, issues hardly covered in the dailies ? The government is only providing lame excuses for its actions," he said. But the news websites have their detractors. "It is true that they have raised the ceiling of freedoms, but they were not void of slander and character assassination," said Saleh Qallab, a former minister of information and a colomnist for the government's daily Al Rai. "They are unprofessional."
"And if the newspaper had a margin of freedoms, this would have not allowed them to flourish. But cracking down on them is not a solution, because we do not want the government to silence the voices of its critics." The owners of the banned websites are threatening to take measures against the government if it does not restore access. "We will escalate measures against the government. We will resort to local and international bodies dealing with press freedoms, including human-rights organsiations support our cause," Mr Akoor said.