IN HIS FIRST TWO YEARS ON THE THRONE, KING ABDULLAH II has spoken out in favor of strengthening press freedom and modernizing the media. In a February speech, the king advocated “transparency in our society, because we have nothing to fear.”
The Jordanian press has seen several positive developments under King Abdullah’s reign, including the reform of several articles of the restrictive Press and Publications Law (PPL), the passage of new legislation to allow private broadcast media, and an apparent halt to the practice of arbitrarily detaining journalists. Nevertheless, certain officials still tried to keep the media on a short leash.
In 1999, the government annulled PPL provisions that granted authorities broad powers to censor newspapers and prosecute journalists. However, the amendments left untouched other provisions that restrict press freedom. On July 12, for example, the State Security Court forbade newspapers to publish news about court hearings and verdicts without prior court permission. The Ministry of Information threatened violators with legal action under the PPL. Under the same law, authorities can censor foreign newspapers entering the country. However, the government appeared reluctant to do so in 2000, in contrast to past years.
The Jordanian Penal Code also includes a number of statutes that impose lengthy prison sentences and stiff fines for such vaguely defined offenses as inciting sedition, defamation, innuendo, and publishing false news. Article 195 of the Penal Code, which prohibits lèse-majesté (insulting the dignity of the king), remains on the books, carrying a penalty of up to three years in prison. Authorities have invoked lèse-majesté in the past to prosecute journalists and other critics of the government.
In recent years, however, officials have seemed less eager to prosecute journalists under these laws. Several Jordanian journalists were prosecuted for offenses such as libel in 2000, but private individuals filed most of the cases. And security authorities seemed to desist from arbitrarily detaining critical journalists, a common practice in past years.
Many attributed this easing of overt harassment to the king’s stated commitment to press freedom. Even so, authorities continued to exert more oblique influence over the local press. Editors and columnists complained of telephone calls from government officials and monitoring by security services. “There is a lot of pressure…on journalists and newspapers,” one editor told CPJ. “All of [the newspapers] are being infiltrated by the security services.”
This subtle harassment has created a climate of self-censorship and editorial censorship, especially on sensitive topics such as corruption and other official misdeeds. “You cannot investigate corruption, because when you do you’ll be told to shut up,” the same editor said.
“The security services control the whole media. So they don’t have to arrest anyone. There’s no stories, no news,” said one newspaper columnist. Several journalists added that they risked losing their jobs if they were too outspoken, also contributing to a general lack of investigative zeal.
In February, Riad Hroub resigned as chairman of the daily Al-Arab al-Youm after selling his shares in the paper, apparently under pressure from authorities. Since its launch in 1997, the paper’s bold coverage of local events had earned it many official sanctions over the years, including arrests of its reporters and threats to withdraw official advertising. While government pressure was apparently an important factor in Hroub’s forced resignation, informed local sources also attributed it to his alleged financial mismanagement of the paper.
As in most of the Arab world, the inability or refusal of government officials and ministries to provide journalists with interviews and basic statistical information made reporting a frustrating endeavor. In a telling January editorial, the English-language daily Jordan Times complained of one instance where “water officials on Saturday said that only the minister, who was in Libya on Saturday, could tell the press how much rain fell on Jordan last week.”
The government and security forces were by no means the only forces limiting press freedom, however. The pro-government Jordan Press Association (JPA) continued to sanction journalists who refused to join the organization or abide by its rules. (Under the PPL and the JPA’s bylaws, all journalists must belong to the organization in order to practice their profession in Jordan.)
In February, King Abdullah told a group of press-freedom advocates that he would work to eliminate mandatory membership in the association, but no action was taken and the JPA continued to harass local journalists. In April, the JPA threatened legal action against the Ministry of Information for failing to enforce the JPA membership requirement on foreign correspondents working in Jordan. And in September, the JPA expelled its own secretary general, Nidal Mansour, for starting an independent organization called the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ).
The JPA claimed that Mansour, who is also editor of the weekly Al-Hadath, had violated JPA bylaws by accepting foreign funding for the CDFJ and by not working full time as a journalist. The Ministry of Information banned Al-Hadath in early December, under pressure from the JPA, on the grounds that Mansour was still the paper’s editor of record. Al-Hadath was eventually allowed to resume publishing after Mansour agreed to remove his name from the masthead. And in late December, the High Court of Justice stayed all JPA sanctions against Mansour pending a final decision in 2001.
The government’s proposed “Free Media Zone” failed to materialize last year. The November 1999 proposal, supported by King Abdullah, sought to attract foreign and regional news organizations by providing them with a censorship-free operational base outside Amman. The proposal struck some local journalists as unfair, however, since the government was offering total press freedom to foreign media while continuing to restrict local media outside the zone. Others argued that Parliament’s hesitancy to approve the project signaled conservative opposition to the open media regime.
The government did amend the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation Law in August, ending the state monopoly on broadcast media. Although this law paved the way for investors to launch private radio and television stations in Jordan, the government retained the power to license broadcast outlets. At year’s end, all licensing appeared on hold pending regulations governing private electronic media.
Meanwhile, satellite dishes were widely available and continued to provide Jordanian citizens with uncensored access to a host of regional and international news channels. Internet service was expensive but available throughout the country.
Nidal Mansour, Al-Hadath
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
The state-sanctioned Jordan Press Association (JPA) expelled Mansour, JPA secretary-general and editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Hadath, because of his work with a local press freedom organization. Mansour, the founder and head of the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) in Amman, was also barred from working as a journalist for one year. The ban was effectively permanent, however, because according to both the country’s Press and Publications Law and the JPA’s bylaws, Jordanians who are not JPA members may not work as journalists in Jordan.
The action followed an investigation by the JPA’s disciplinary council, which concluded that Mansour had violated its bylaws by accepting foreign funding for the CDFJ and by not working full time as a journalist.
In early September, the council ruled that Mansour be suspended for one year. The JPA governing body then increased the punishment to permanent expulsion. Mansour has appealed the decision to Jordan’s High Court of Justice.
In December, the High Court of Justice stayed the JPA’s expulsion of Mansour pending its own ruling, which had not yet been delivered at press time.
Jamal Nasrallah, Agence France-Presse
Jordanian riot police beat and temporarily detained Agence France-Presse photographer Nasrallah at the scene of clashes between Jordanian authorities and pro-Palestinian demonstrators near the King Hussein Bridge (also known as the Allenby Bridge), which links Jordan with the West Bank.
According to Nasrallah, several police officers approached him while he was photographing the turmoil. They beat him with truncheons and their fists, then detained him in a nearby police van for three hours. The police also confiscated Nasrallah’s film.
Nasrallah said a police colonel phoned him later that day to apologize for the incident. His film was later returned.
The Ministry of Information informed Nidal Mansour, editor of the weekly Al-Hadath, that the newspaper was banned indefinitely because Mansour had failed to appoint a successor following his dismissal from the Jordan Press Association (JPA) in September. Mansour was expelled because of his work with a local press freedom organization.
Under Jordanian law, only members of the JPA can work legally as journalists in Jordan. The ministry objected in particular that Mansour’s name remained on Al-Hadath‘s masthead as editor in chief.
Mansour eventually struck a compromise with the ministry whereby he agreed to remove his name from the masthead. Al-Hadath was allowed to resume publishing a few days later.