Jordan has blocked unlicensed news websites in a step toward regulating online media widely criticised by the government and readers for sensational reporting, said its Press and Publication Department.

The department, once officially called the Censorship Department cut access to 304 domestic online sites on Sunday and Monday. It said another 102 news websites remain accessible, because they are either licensed or seeking registration.

Information Minister Mohammed Momani said the state was only seeking to regulate online media.

“The government recognizes media is one of the most important pillars of modern democracy, and strengthening it is a key component of Jordan’s political reform efforts”, said Mr. Momani.

“We seek free and independent national media, with the highest standards of professionalism and credibility”, he said.

“We will not allow personal attacks against individuals, or attacks against any groups or minorities”, he added, referring to some recent incidents in which online media were blamed for inciting religious or social prejudice and inaccurate reporting involving public figures. Targets of some of the articles claimed that some online editors sought bribes in return for halting publication of false rumours.

But members of Jordanian media and the opposition party said the state is muzzling its critics. Daoud Kuttab, Chief Editor of blocked www.ammannet.net, said the government was “punishing the Jordanian people because it is preventing them from reading news about developments that concern them”.

“We refuse to be intimidated by being forced to license,” he said.

One of the websites was unblocked after its editor filed registration forms. The Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest opposition group, said in a statement that blocking online sites “is a provocation in line with the government practice of tyranny ... and to gag opposing opinion”.

Last year, Jordan’s parliament passed a law requiring news websites to register with the Department of Press and Publication, once officially called the Censorship Department. Websites are also required to appoint a Jordanian Chief Editor who would be held accountable for all online content, including comments posted by readers.

Under the law, the state has the authority to block websites, including those originating from abroad, if they are deemed in violation of the law. Since the Arab Spring uprisings that unseated four Arab leaders two years ago, Jordan has taken steps to ease restrictions on freedom of expression, opinion and assembly.

The government also introduced special courts to deal with media cases, presided over by specialised civil judges. While the government approved a code of conduct several years ago with the intention of fostering a “free and independent media”, journalists are still closely watched by intelligence agencies and often report harassment and threats.

Bloggers have been arrested, and as a result, many practice self-censorship. Last year, a private satellite TV station was closed after airing views critical of members of the royal family.