By Ala’ Alrababa’h (Twitter: @a_alrababah)
In June 2012, the Project On Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) released a briefing titled: Arab Uprisings: New Opportunities for Political Science. While the report included questions on the role of new media in the Arab Uprisings, I was disappointed to see that it hardly mentioned the role of blogs in shaping the transitions in Arab countries. Nevertheless, the absence of this topic prompted me to write my own article on it.
Blogs are not the most important medium shaping current events in Jordan. However, their role has not been trivial. You know that online media, including blogs, are influential when the government tries to censor them. In fact, King Abdullah II himself commented on Black Iris, a prominent Jordanian blog, back in 2008. Further, even though King Abdullah II has a website that publishes his speeches and visions, he decided to also publish some of the content of the website on a distinct blog. This suggests that the king sees a special value in blogs as a medium to share his thoughts.
In this post, I will look at the main ways in which Jordanian blogs have been playing a role in Jordan’s current transition. I will look at Jordanian blogs that mainly provide opinion and analysis, rather than news websites whose main function is reporting. News websites too play an essential role, but I think they are worthy of their own study.
1- Political Expression:
Kevin Wallsten, Professor of Political Science at California State University, claims that political blogs should be defined as a “novel form of political expression.” Political blogs essentially provide individuals with a forum to voice their opinions on political issues. Jordan has traditionally censored the media and encouraged a system of self-censorship. I can say from experience that parents in Jordan urge their children not to express their political views publicly. This mentality has its roots in the older generations’ experience with the ordeals that come with being ‘politically affiliated.’ Thus, many became apathetic to political events and refused to participate in demonstrations to oppose certain government policies. But a democracy requires a politically aware public that can express itself and participate in the political process. The mere activity of writing political thoughts and sharing them with strangers online serves as an educational experience that is much needed in a transitioning democracy like Jordan.
2- Political Participation:
In its core, political expression implies voicing an individual’s opinions. Political participation, on the other hand, depends on the motivation of the blogger. If the blogger merely desires to express him/herself, then blogging would not be considered an act of political participation. On the other hand, if the blogger intends to influence policy in a certain way, such as criticizing government policy, adopting causes, and encouraging readers to sign petitions, then blogging would be considered a form of political participation (for more on blogging as political participation, see here).
Indeed, many Jordanian bloggers write not only to express themselves, but also to influence events. Perhaps the most obvious example would be the efforts to protest Internet censorship by the Jordanian government. On August 29th 2012, leading blogs orchestrated a blackout by changing their homepages to black screens and lobbying other bloggers to follow suit.
Jordanian bloggers have also petitioned against article 308 of the constitution, calling it: “The Rape and Marry Law.” Meanwhile, others blogged to oppose holding political prisoners in the country, and to show support to current political prisoners.
In another instance, a blogger who wrote about the need to constitutionalize the powers of the king was invited a week later to meet and talk to the king (along with other leading bloggers and activists in Jordan).
But perhaps one of the best examples of how bloggers can participate in the political process is what Jawad Abbassi, a blogger at Liberty Corner, has done. His blogs may not be easy to read—they address Economic problems, and are full of numbers—but they are sobering. In one post, he wrote asking the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources to explain its unjustified protection grants to inefficient Jordan Petroleum Refinery. This post was also published in other media outlets. The Ministry replied to his questions in Jordanian newspapers. Abbasi responded with further questions.
3- Influence public discussion
Bloggers try to influence public discussion and popular feelings. Blogs may discuss issues that are viewed as taboo by the general public. As blogs break these taboos, they initiate unprecedented public discussions on controversial issues. One such blog is The Arab Observer. Fadi Zaghmout started this blog in 2006 to discuss “social issues… not [usually] addressed in the traditional media in Jordan.” He focuses on gender and sexuality, topics that continue to be off limits in the country. In addition, Zaghmout has recently published a novel that discusses the same issues he blogs about. It was titled Aroos Amman (Amman’s Bride).
Another blog that could potentially influence public discussion is Kalimaatdotnet. There, Sara Obeidat published a satirical masterpiece on the status of education in Jordan (and the Arab world). The post is titled: “Teaching For Dummies: A Teacher’s Guide on What and How to Teach Arab Students.” In this post, Obeidat pays particular attention to the way history courses are taught at our schools. It’s a must-read for anybody who has not yet done so.
Other Jordanian bloggers have addressed topics such as privacy, and violence and religion. An entertaining satirical blog criticized the reactions to the movie: Innocence of Muslims. And bloggers have even addressed everyday issues such as driving.
4- Reporting on events and media-checking
Finally, blogs are another source of reporting on events. Jordanian bloggers report on issues and events not usually covered by the media. A blogger wrote about a damaged street sign in Amman, and tweeted her post. The Mayor of Amman saw the tweet, and ordered the Amman Municipality to repair it.
When King Abdullah II met a group of youth in November, a blogger was the first to give an account of the meeting. Other news media reported the meeting, which took place behind closed doors, based on the blogger’s account.
Jordanian bloggers can also fact-check other media sources. In one instance the Jordanian newspaper Alghad printed a fake interview with Henry Kissinger. The origin of the interview was a British satirical news source. Naseem Tarawneh, who keeps The Black Iris blog, revealed Alghad’s mistake.
Despite what is mentioned in this article, the impact of Jordanian blogs should not be exaggerated. It is enough to say that many blogs in Jordan play a nontrivial part in shaping events. More importantly, there is much more potential for these blogs to have further influence. Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell, two political scientists and prominent bloggers in the U.S., argue that blogs differ from traditional media because blogrolls and hyperlinks allow them to establish networks. Those networks provide one reason why blogs have an agenda-setting power. Jordanian blogs continue to lack many of those networks. They should focus on establishing these networks in order to further shape political events and the public discussion surrounding them.