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The nation of Jordan has moved past an important milestone. More than half the population there has the ability to get online. That makes Jordan the Arab world's leader in Internet access, which means many people noticed when the government, earlier this month, began shutting down local news sites. A new law requires official registration, a large fee, even a government-approved editor. Critics say the government, facing a protest movement, is engaging in barely disguised censorship.
Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The protests are getting louder, as websites go dark across the kingdom, more than 300 in all. The government says it's protecting citizens against slander and blackmail on unregulated websites. But website editors charge the law is political, not legal, and targets online dissent.
DAOUD KUTTAB: Internet is one of the only places that people have a voice that is outside of the gatekeepers of the government.
AMOS: That's Daoud Kuttab, the founder of Amman Net, one of the sites now blocked. His newsroom has been in operation for more than a decade. He's a pioneer in Jordan's independent news culture.
KUTTAB: The major newspapers are owned by the government. Radio and television is owned by the government. The private - the two private newspapers in Jordan - are owned by businessmen who are totally in bed with the government. So where is independent media?
AMOS: Some of that independent media disappeared in Jordan on June 2nd. The domestic blackout doesn't include Internet giants like Google and Facebook. The law also doesn't touch Jordanian bloggers like Nassem Tarawnah. He runs a site called Hiba.com. He escaped the ban but he joined the protests.
NASSEM TARAWNAH: Absolutely, I mean we are angry because it sets a very, very dangerous precedent. There is nothing to say that a year from now, two years from now, this is not going to affect a larger segment of the Internet.
AMOS: We meet at a cafe where young customers pay for cappuccinos and log-on for free. Jordan's Internet culture is most popular among a generation that bypasses the country's traditional media. The go-to places for news and comment are Facebook and popular local websites, says Tarawnah.
TARAWNAH: This intricate web of laws and regulation really aim to kind of create this culture of self-censorship. Self-censorship is incredibly high in this country. It's about pushing that offline culture of fear online.
AMOS: He's already seen online opinions dry up, even on his site.
TARAWNAH: It makes it even more difficult and challenging to get average people to say, speak up, you know, you can post it - it's safe, because that safety has been kind of eroded.
AMOS: The government imposed the Internet law as dissent in the kingdom has grown, over high-level corruption, a faltering economy. The most recent protests focused on the deployment of Patriot missile batteries and U.S. fighter jets, sent to protect Jordan, according to the White House, against violent spillover from Syria.
So it's no surprise Internet publishers accuse the government of trying to stifle critics. Government officials insist the law protects citizens who've been unfairly slandered online.
Daoud Kuttab acknowledges that there have been abuses.
KUTTAB: That's true, but that's the price of an openness. You know? And if somebody has actually broken the law and blackmailed people, put them in jail. Don't kill all the messengers using a machine gun just to get rid of a fly.
AMOS: He's joined a lawsuit against the government, as other Web publishers have encouraged a national campaign to break the blackout with technology - using what's known as a proxy to log on to servers outside the country. Jordanians are creating programs to do just that, offering the service for free online.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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