In the early 19th century the British government was anxious to keep newspapers out of the hands of the masses – and had a not-so-bright idea about how to do it.
In 1815 it imposed a tax of four pence on every copy – a sum which in those days made newspapers unaffordable to all but the "responsible" wealthier classes. But despite tough penalties for publishers who refused to pay the tax (known as stamp duty) the move was met with widespread defiance:
"Some radicals such as Richard Carlile ignored the law and continued to publish his newspaper, The Republican, without paying stamp duty. Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol and fined £1,500.
"In the 1830s men such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, John Cleave, George Julian Harney and James O'Brien joined Richard Carlile in the fight against what they called a tax on knowledge. As these radical publishers refused to pay stamp duty on their newspapers, this resulted in fines and periods of imprisonment."
The stamp duty scheme contained a fatal flaw, however. Readers weren't prepared to spend money on the law-abiding establishment papers when there was more interesting news to be found elsewhere – and much more cheaply:
"At the beginning of 1836 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man's Guardian, and John Cleave's Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times [the leading establishment paper] sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000."
And so, in 1855, the authorities gave up their struggle. Stamp duty was finally abolished – a move celebrated by this poem, written by a local tailor, in the Manchester Guardian:
To day the press, from duty free,
Appears on every side;
Whilst competition reigns around,
And news is scattered wide.
A perfect flood of papers rise,
Like breakers in the storm,
Of every size – at every price –
And every make and form
I was reminded of this old battle for press freedom in Britain by the current situation in Jordan where the government's control over traditional media is being challenged by interlopers in the form of websites publishing online news.
These websites are the modern equivalent of the British radical press a century and a half ago and perform a similar function: providing information and opinion that the authorities would like to suppress.
Some 300 websites have now been blocked inside Jordan for failing (or refusing) to obtain a government licence. By demanding licences, the authorities are hoping either to close them down or draw them into the tightly-constructed legal web by which the rest of the Jordanian media are kept under the government's thumb.
In the long run, this is no more likely to succeed than the old British newspaper tax. It won't stop "undesirable" news coming out. On the internet, people will always find ways to publish it and others will always find ways to read it.
The New York Times reported:
The sites that were blocked in Jordan remained available to Internet users outside the country. Some of them, like the popular site jo24.net, set up ways to get around the access blockage and alerted subscribers by email.
Daoud Kuttab, who founded one of the first of the sites, AmmanNet, 13 years ago, said he was posting news on Facebook and on other websites his company owned that were not affected.
"The information we have will be available to the public somehow," Mr Kuttab said in an interview, adding, "It is a sad day when a country wants its people to hear things only from the government’s perspective."
There are three principal mechanisms for restricting press freedom in Jordan. One is the anachronistic Press and Publications Law of 1998 which was heavily criticised even before parliament approved it. Another is the Jordanian Press Association (JPA), a body established under a separate law, which regulates the activities of journalists. Finally, there is an atmosphere of intimidation which results in extensive self-censorship.
Besides bringing websites under the aegis of the Press and Publications Law and its licensing system, the authorities are also trying to tie websites into the Jordanian Press Association by requiring websites to appoint an editor-in-chief who is a member of the JPA.
This aspect has not been much discussed, but it's worth a closer look.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the JPA is to maintain professional standards by ensuring that journalists are properly trained and adhere to ethical principles. Others view it as a tool for keeping journalists in line politically.
One major problem is that you cannot be legally employed as a journalist unless you belong to the JPA. The blogger Black Iris
"Without its membership you cannot be called a journalist. And upon becoming a member, you must adhere to its rules and views. I really feel sorry for Jordanian journalists, because a journalist just wants to write and Jordan is filled with so much to write about but it’s like everything is on mute.
"Corruption, policies, laws, you’re not allowed to talk about it, and hence nothing gets done about it. On top of government laws they are subjected to constant harassment from the [JPA] as well as those random telephone calls from shadowy Orwellian figures."
The JPA's code of ethics (in Arabic) contains some odd ideas about the duty of journalists – they are supposed to affirm national unity, support the judiciary, refrain from insulting the authorities, show commitment to the religious and moral values of society and not agitate about crimes and scandals – but compulsory membership is the biggest problem.
For a start, this conflicts with Jordan's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which grants everyone the right to form and join trade unions (or not), as they see fit.
At a more practical level, the compulsory membership rule gives the JPA power to disbar people from working legally as journalists, by expelling them from the organisation. This has happened on a number of occasions.
It's difficult to regard the JPA as an independent trade union or professional body, since it is established and governed by law. Human Rights Watch also points out that its membership is dominated by journalists from publications that are wholly or partly government-owned – a significant factor when it comes to members voting.
This system is supposedly needed in order to prevent "illegal" journalists from violating the law and codes of ethics but, as Human Right Watch noted in a report:
"It is not clear that mandatory membership in a press association is the proper mechanism for ensuring that journalists do not harm reputations or otherwise libel or slander people.
"Jordan already has very broad laws in its penal code against slander, libel and 'harming the reputation' of others. Instead of the press association, the courts should establish the boundaries of these laws and determine whether a journalist has violated them."
"In Jordan, journalism remains a profession with high bars to entry by law. Media enterprises can only hire persons with certain academic degrees and after they have completed training on the job. As more media content is being produced and consumed on the internet, the boundaries of journalism, and thus the viability of a body regulating entry into the profession, becomes less clear."
The unspoken assumption in all this is that publishers would hire incompetent people as journalists if given half a chance, and if the authorities did not "protect" them from doing so. If the issue was simply one of competence, employers could be left to make their own decisions without the government getting involved.
It's not about competence so much as control. Some years ago, Costa Rica made a similar argument, trying to draw analogies between journalism and the medical and legal professions. Nobody would want to be operated on by an untrained surgeon, but if someone can write intelligently and accurately why should they have to go through regulatory hoops in order to do so?
In Costa Rica's case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights eventually gave this ruling [PDF, page 17]:
"Journalism is the primary and principal manifestation of freedom of expression of thought. For that reason, because it is linked with freedom of expression, which is an inherent right of each individual, journalism cannot be equated to a profession that is merely granting a service to the public through the application of some knowledge or training …
"The practice of journalism … requires a person to engage in activities that define or embrace the freedom of expression which the Convention [on Human Rights] guarantees. This is not true of the practice of law or medicine,for example. Unlike journalism, the practice of law and medicine – that is to say, the things that lawyers or physicians do – is not an activity specifically guaranteed by the Convention."
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 8 June 2013