Jordan is blocking one of the first LGBTQI magazines in the MENA region

My.Kali was among the first LGBTQI-inclusive web magazine  based in Jordan , and is now the only one that is currently regularly updated . The bad news is that after public attacks by MP Dima Tahboub, the site is blocked in Jordan, under official orders. The good news is that civil society is fighting this censorship, on multiple fronts.

Here’s a look at what’s happening now in Jordan, how rights groups are responding to the block, and how Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline has been helping My.Kali with strategies for reaching an audience despite the block.

What is My.Kali, and what has happened so far? 

My.Kali was one of the first inclusive magazines in the Middle East and North Africa region. It was established in 2007 by a group of students, and its main objectives are to raise awareness about the struggles of LGBTQI people in MENA, and to fight homophobia and transphobia, which can lead to human rights abuses. The magazine focuses in particular on the serious cases of repression of people living in Jordan.

On July 31, 2017, the Jordanian Audiovisual Commission, evidently acting under pressure from MP Tahboub, ordered My.Kali blocked on the grounds that the magazine had not obtained a license for publication.

This act of censorship is a demonstration of how the conditions for internet freedom in Jordan have declined over the past five years. In 2012 the government made amendments to Jordan’s Press and Publication Law, with a provision to require news sites to obtain licenses from the government to operate, which is an avenue for state censorship (and one reason why we are deeply concerned about imposing such requirements for internet services and content under the garb of so-called OTT regulation ). This was followed by amendments in April 2014 to the country’s counter-terrorism law that broadened the definition of terrorism to include any “act threatening the country’s security situation.” Taken together, these changes make it easier for the government to silence activists and journalists such as those publishing My.Kali.

How My.Kali became a target of censorship

On July 19, MP Tahboub, a representative of the conservative Islamic Action Front party, appeared on Deutsche Welle, the German television broadcaster, and declared that homosexuals are not welcome in Jordan, and that individuals identifying as LGBTQI are “against the Islamic religion.” Following the interview, the MP continued to target the LGBTQI community in Jordan, posting attacks on her social media channels and specifically calling out My.Kali magazine for criticism.

MP Tahboub was the first to publicly propose that the government block My.Kali. In July, she filed a complaint with the Jordanian Audiovisual Commission stating that My.Kali magazine does not have a valid license to publish under Jordan’s Press and Publication Law. The Commission then issued an order to block the site.

Tahboub claims that her actions were “in harmony” with the “general culture of Jordan,” asserting, “I had a lot of people sending messages and emails welcoming what I did.” So far, local Jordanian media have mostly supported Tahboub’s stance that homosexuality is not accepted in Jordan, and the LGBTQI community remains subject to discrimination, prejudice, and hateful attacks.

Everyone has the right to free expression, and Jordan is a signatory state to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Furthermore, according to the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34 of 2011, permissible restrictions on online content should be “content-specific.” The Comment notes that “Generic bans on the operation of certain sites and systems” as well as the prohibition of “a site … from publishing material solely on the basis that it may be critical of the government or the political social system espoused by the government” are both inconsistent with Article 19 of the ICCPR (emphasis, ours).

On August 2, the editors at My.Kali wrote an open letter to  MP Tahboub, stating:

‘’Democracy gave you the seat to fight for the things you and your constituents believe in. We only ask that you give all Jordanians the space to exercise our opinions in the same way.”

Because the site has been blocked, My.Kali is now publishing posts using Medium‘s online platform.

Rights groups condemn the censorship

Groups working to protect free expression and safeguard journalism across the globe are taking action. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published an article condemning the block, reporting that its staff contacted the Jordanian Audiovisual Commission to seek comments or any further information about the matter, but the emails were ignored.

Reporters without Borders provides details on the Jordanian government blocking 263 sites, including My.Kali and 7iber. 7iber had refused to participate in the government’s licensing system, which human rights experts at the United Nations have pointed out can be used to repress journalism and news reporting. (Furthermore, we note that unlike in the broadcasting sector, for which registration or licensing has been necessary to allow governments to distribute limited frequencies, such requirements cannot be justified in the case of the internet, as it can accommodate an unlimited number of points of entry and an essentially unlimited number of users.)

The NGO has also published an open letter to Jordan’s King Abdullah to fight the block.

At the end of August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article that provides additional context for the censorship, highlighting the fact that repression of the LGBTQI community in Jordan is not new, nor is it limited to online censorship. Since 2014, authorities in Jordan have been arresting more LGBTQI-identified individuals. HRW is asking Jordanian authorities to protect human rights, stating, “Jordan’s leaders should ensure that ministers and other authorities uphold their international human rights obligations for everyone, including LGBT people.” We wholeheartedly agree.

Working together to mitigate the impact of censorship

What are the real-world options when a site like My.Kali is blocked “by the authorities” in a place with limited press freedom? The best answer may be a multi-faceted approach. The current situation in Egypt shows how civil society groups can work together to expose repression and violations of human rights so that states can be held accountable: while some partners are publicly condemning censorship, others are analyzing (and helping the world understand) the censorship techniques that are being deployed, and exposing who is behind them.

Our helpline’s involvement with My.Kali began in July of 2016, when activists first realized that had been blocked (roughly a year before the official order, referenced above, was issued). They reported the block to our Helpline team, and we acted with urgency, given that the website is the magazine’s most important asset, especially after the magazine began publishing articles in Arabic, which dramatically increased its readership. A successful attack on the website could easily have meant the death of the magazine.

We started by sharing techniques with the My.Kali team to mitigate the effect of the censorship. During our first interaction, the Helpline compiled circumvention guides that My.Kali could share with its readers via social media. These guides focused on changing domain name system (DNS) server settings and use of trusted proxies and virtual private networks (VPNs).

In our next interaction, we explored options for mirroring the content online. Unfortunately, at the time it was difficult to deploy and maintain mirrors, due to a lack of technical and human resources. We opted for a more feasible solution and in January 2017, the team behind My.Kali decided to switch to publishing on Medium. We provided guidance to help the team move content to Medium from the original WordPress.

Before the official order to block My.Kali was issued, we also worked with the team to  gather proof of interference with access to the site. We wanted to understand what techniques were being used to block the domain, and which countries and internet service providers were implementing the block. People were reporting the site blocked not just in Jordan but also in Palestine’s West Bank. Although we not able to come to definitive conclusion, our observations indicated that My.Kali was under a DNS block.

Finally, working with our policy team, we were able to connect My.Kali with one of our partner organizations that specializes in legal assistance for non-profit organizations. At the end of our consultation in October 2016, we concluded that there was no official legal action being taken against the magazine that would justify the censorship or interference with the magazine’s services. So it was with heavy heart that we heard the news that the Commission had officially ordered a block this past July.

What’s next? We continue to fight for free expression for all

No one should be stripped of the right to speak freely, to access information, to form an opinion, or to impart information. This fundamental human right does not disappear online. Unfortunately, we cannot point to a strong record of Jordan responding positively to pressure by international human rights bodies. Access Now will continue to monitor the situation, to offer direct support to individuals and groups like My.Kali, and to raise awareness, in the region and globally, of the human rights impact of such persecutions.