Attacks on the Press 1999: Jordan

In February, Abdullah II assumed the Hashemite throne after the death of his father, King Hussein. Promising more democracy and public freedoms, the new monarch immediately addressed press freedom concerns, calling on the government to amend the highly controversial Press and Publications Law of 1998.

In September, legislators approved amendments that improved on the 1998 law in several respects. Parliament scrapped the old law’s much assailed Article 37, which prohibited reporting deemed, variously, to “offend the King or the Royal Family,” “infringe on the independence of the judiciary,” “defame the heads of Arab, Islamic, or friendly states,” or harm “national unity.” The amended law also reduced fines against journalists while reducing the minimum amount of capital required to launch newspapers. Perhaps most important, Parliament axed the notorious Article 50, which granted courts sweeping, open-ended power to ban publications involved in litigation.

Despite these encouraging steps, Jordanian journalists greeted the amendments with restrained optimism, noting that the new law still gives authorities the power to censor foreign newspapers entering the country. The new Article 38 also allows prosecutors to prohibit press coverage of criminal investigations. Authorities had frequently used a similar version of Article 38 contained in the previous law to impose news blackouts on high-profile cases such as the water-pollution crisis of 1998.

Aside from the press law, Jordanian authorities retained several other means of sanctioning journalists and discouraging independent reporting. The penal code contains a number of statutes whose ambiguously worded provisions impose lengthy prison sentences and stiff fines for journalists convicted of such offenses as “inciting sedition,” defamation, innuendo, and publishing false news. The infamous Article 195 of the penal code, which prohibits lse-majestŽ (insulting the dignity of the king), remains on the books, carrying a penalty of up to three years in prison. Authorities have invoked lse-majestŽ in the past to prosecute journalists and other critics of the government.

While CPJ was unaware of any such prosecutions in 1999, authorities did continue to arrest journalists in retaliation for their published criticisms, fostering a climate of fear and self-censorship. During the year, at least four reporters and editors were detained for varying lengths of time. Meanwhile, authorities reportedly warned local newspaper columnists to avoid commenting on the government’s November deportation of four leading Hamas activists to Qatar.

The pro-government Jordan Press Association (JPA) has also restricted press freedom. Under Jordanian law, only JPA members may work in the local press. In October, the JPA announced it was expelling three journalists from its ranks–thus banishing them from the profession–for violating bylaws that prohibit so-called normalization with Israel. The journalists were cited for having visited Israel to attend a seminar at Haifa University. The JPA reversed the decision in November, announcing that the three journalists had “agreed to sign a statement proposed by the JPA…stating that fighting normalization with Israel was a necessity.”

Though many reporters and editors continued to resist joining the press association–and authorities seemed unwilling to enforce the law against nonÐJPA members working as journalists–the law remains open to abuse. Prior to the expulsion of the three journalists, for example, Prime Minister Abdel Raouf al-Rawabdeh demanded that nonmembers be barred from covering official events, apparently responding to JPA pressure. And two months later, the Information Ministry announced that nonmember journalists would be prohibited from covering Prime Minister al-Rawabdeh’s August 9 press conference. The government later rescinded the move, following protests from Jordanian journalists.

In November, the al-Rawabdeh government announced its intention to establish a “free media zone” outside Amman to serve as a base for foreign news organizations. The idea was to create a regional news hub and bring foreign capital into Jordan. The government promised that the zone would be free of government censorship and other forms of interference. The proposal offended some local journalists, however, since the government seemed prepared to promise unhindered press freedom to foreign media in the free zone while presumably continuing to restrict local media outside the zone.

In addition to the sometimes boisterous local press, Jordanians enjoy access to a wide variety of alternative information sources. Although the local broadcast media remain in state hands, satellite dishes are widely available, allowing many citizens to tune in to the regional and international channels of their choice. And the government has eased the censorship that peaked in 1997Ð98 with the widespread confiscation of critical publications. Foreign newspapers, particularly regional and pan-Arab publications, circulated with greater freedom than in previous years

Jordan has also become a regional model for Internet development. Today a large number of Jordanian papers are online. Despite relatively high subscription costs, public Internet use has grown, both from private subscription and from the growing number of Internet cafŽs in Amman and other cities. The government reportedly monitors e-mail traffic; and in the past, cases have been documented of authorities’ harassing users who criticized the government over the Web. For the most part, however, Internet use seems free of state interference.

February 4

Authorities arrested al-Rimawi, editor in chief of the pro-Syrian weekly Al-Majd, and subsequently charged him under the 1998 Press and Publications Law (PPL). Al-Rimawi was accused of “offending” the royal family and “attacking” the security forces. He was reportedly the first Jordanian journalist to be charged under the 1998 PPL.

The charges came in response to an article published in AlMajd‘s February 1 edition reporting on an alleged private meeting between the late King Hussein and his brother Crown Prince Hassan. In January, the king had announced that his brother was no longer heir to the throne and instead named his own son, Prince Abdullah.

The article alleged that Hassan laid his revolver down and told the king to shoot him if he believed that he, Hassan, was a traitor. Al-Rimawi was also charged in connection with a January 18 editorial in which he praised President Hafez al-Assad.

He was held in Juwaydeh Prison for two days. He posted bail on February 6. (See April 28 cases.)

February 14

The Court of First Instance, headed by Judge Mansour Hadidi, ordered the indefinite suspension of the pro-Syrian weekly Al-Majd under Article 50 of the 1998 Press and Publications Law, which took effect in September 1998.

Article 50 grants the judiciary extraordinary powers for purposes of “public interest” or “national security” or to close down publications that have been charged with an offense.

The court order followed official charges that Al-Majd and its editor, Fahd al-Rimawi, had “offended” the royal family and “attacked” the security forces (see previous case). The closure of Al-Majd was reportedly the first such action against a Jordanian newspaper since the Press and Publications Law went into effect in September 1998.

On February 18, the Court of Appeals reversed the suspension of Al-Majd. The paper resumed publication the following week.

June 29
Shaker al-Jawhari, Al-Khaleej, Al-Arab al-Youm IMPRISONED

Jordanian intelligence agents detained al-Jawhari, editor of the UAE-based daily Al- Khaleej and a columnist for the Jordanian daily Al-Arab al-Youm, and questioned him about articles that had appeared in those papers. He was held for 32 hours before his release on the evening of June 30.

According to al-Jawhari, agents questioned him about his June 28 column in Al-Arab al-Youm entitled “Media Politics Between Reality and Hanky-Panky.” The column criticized Prime Minister Abdel Raouf al-Rawabdeh’s plans to bar journalists who are not members of the Jordan Press Association from attending official events.

Al-Jawhari was also questioned over an Al-Khaleej story that mentioned King Abdullah’s concern about conditions at a public hospital, which the paper described as rat-infested. Finally, al-Jawhari was asked about his Al-Khaleej interview with Palestinian gunman Abu Daoud (also known as Muhammad Oudeh), who masterminded the kidnapping and killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and who had recently published an autobiography.

July 25
Senan Shaqdeh, Al-Massaeyah IMPRISONED

In the early-morning hours, agents from the Jordanian General Intelligence Department arrested Shaqdeh, a senior editor with the evening daily Al-Massaeyah, at his home in Amman. The agents seized several of Shaqdeh’s manuscripts before presenting him with an arrest warrant issued by the Intelligence Department’s prosecuting attorney.

He was held for more than two weeks without charge. During his detention, Shaqdeh was questioned about several news articles he had written for Al-Massaeyah and other Jordanian newspapers, including an Al-Massaeyah piece citing critical comments reportedly made by the Syrian ambassador to Jordan on the issue of Jordanian prisoners in Syria. Shaqdeh was also questioned about his news coverage of Palestinian affairs.

In a letter to King Abdullah II, CPJ protested the arrest and urged the king to intervene on the editor’s behalf. Shaqdeh was eventually released on August 10, following the king’s reported intervention.

August 7
Several journalists HARASSED

The Information Ministry distributed a press circular stating that journalists who were not registered members of the Jordan Press Association (JPA) would not be allowed to cover Prime Minister Abdel Raouf al-Rawabdeh’s August 9 press conference.

Although JPA membership is compulsory under the Press and Publications Law, several dozen Jordanian journalists continue to resist joining the association. This was the government’s first attempt to enforce al-Rawabdeh’s June demand that nonÐJPA members be barred from covering official events. The prime minister apparently made this demand under pressure from the JPA.

The government reversed itself on August 8, announcing that all journalists would be allowed to attend the press conference whether they were JPA members or not.

August 23
Abdel Karim Barghouthi, Al-Bilad IMPRISONED

Authorities arrested Barghouthi, editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Bilad, after a state prosecutor issued a 14-day detention order against him. The order came in response to a complaint by Issam Rawabdeh, son of Prime Minister Abdel Raouf al-Rawabdeh. The complaint related to an article that Barghouthi had published in the previous week’s edition of Al-Bilad alleging that Issam Rawabdeh had harassed a group of female nurses on a bus.

Barghouthi was initially detained on August 22. He was released on bail the same day, then rearrested the following day. CPJ protested the editor’s arrest in a letter to Prime Minister al-Rawabdeh.

Barghouthi, who is in his 60s and suffers from a heart ailment, was freed on August 28 after the state prosecutor reversed the detention order against him.

October 10
Saad Selawi, Middle East Broadcasting Centre ATTACKED

Amman police assaulted Selawi, a veteran reporter and bureau chief for the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Centre, while he was attempting to film at the scene of an armed bank robbery in the city.

According to Selawi, Police Commissioner Ziad al-Najdawi approached him while he was filming at the Arab Bank on Mecca Street. Al-Najdawi asked him to surrender his camera. When Selawi refused, six or seven officers beat him, inflicting bruises, and destroyed his camera.

Police then detained Selawi and held him for about three hours. He was then freed after the reported intervention of Prime Minister Abdel Raouf al-Rawabdeh and Information Minister Ayman Majalli. Selawi said the police later apologized for the attack, claiming it was an “isolated incident.”

October 19
Abdullah Hasanat, Jordan Times HARASSED
Sultan Hattab, Al-Rai HARASSED
Jihad Momani, Al-Dustour HARASSED

The Jordan Press Association (JPA) announced it was expelling Hasanat, editor of the English-language daily Jordan Times, Hattab, a columnist for the daily Al-Rai, and Momani, a columnist for the daily Al-Dustour.

In September, the three journalists visited Israel at the invitation of Haifa University’s Centre for Arab-Jewish Studies. This visit led the JPA to threaten them with expulsion for violating its bylaws, which prohibit “normalization” with Israel.

If they had been expelled from the JPA, the three would have faced possible termination of their professional careers. The Press and Publications Law (PPL) stipulates membership in the JPA as a condition for practicing journalism in Jordan.

CPJ condemned the decision in an October 20 letter to JPA chairman Seif al-Sharif and urged that the decision to expel Hasanat, Hattab, and Momani be reversed. The JPA reversed the decision in November, announcing that the three journalists had “agreed to sign a statement proposed by the JPA…stating that fighting normalization with Israel was a necessity.”