Attacks on the Press 2001: Jordan

King Abdullah II, who promised political reform when he began his reign in February 1999, has repeatedly affirmed that “the sky is the limit” for press freedom in Jordan. The reality is very different. Harsh new legal restrictions, along with familiar hardships such as threats and detentions, led to a deterioration in press freedom conditions during 2001.

On October 8, the government of Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Ragheb introduced “temporary” amendments to an already harsh Penal Code in response to the U.S.-led international “war on terror.” However, the legislation went beyond anti-terrorism provisions to impose tough general restrictions on freedom of expression.

Approved by King Abdullah, the new amendments stipulate that publications can be temporarily or permanently banned by the courts for publishing “false information or rumors,” harming “national unity,” “aggravat[ing] basic social norms,” “sow[ing] the seeds of hatred,” or harming “the honor or reputation of individuals.” Offending editors and owners face prison sentences of between three and six months, fines of 5,000 Jordanian dinars (about US$7,000), or both.

The new amendments also expanded a Penal Code article that criminalizes “insulting the dignity of the king” by making it an offense to publish any rumors or falsehoods regarding the king, whether in print, in cartoons, or online. The law also criminalizes those who “incite” others to commit similar offenses. Violators face between one and three years in prison. Charges brought under the new amendments are to be tried primarily in state security courts, rather than civil courts.

The amendments came after Jordanian officials warned they would not tolerate any efforts to destabilize the country in the aftermath of the U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan. Government officials blamed the new law on weekly newspapers that practice “irresponsible journalism.” But government efforts to rein in dissent also appeared to reflect the depth of political uncertainty in Jordan, where the economy continued to stagnate and fears persisted of domestic spillover from Palestinian-Israeli violence next door.

Parliament is expected to review the amendments when it reconvenes in September 2002, though by year’s end the government had not prosecuted any journalists under the law. Nevertheless, its potential chilling effect was difficult to dispute.

Jordanian officials also continued to employ a number of indirect methods to hinder journalists and foster self-censorship. The country’s formidable security forces admonished journalists behind the scenes. Sometimes, the mere presence of security agents was enough to stifle independent reporting. Reverting to a practice that seemed on the decline in 2000, security forces detained a number of journalists during the year, including a reporter for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite station, who was interrogated after filming clashes between Jordanian police and demonstrators.

In March, six Israeli journalists were prevented from covering the Arab Summit in Amman. Jordanian security authorities requested that they leave the country, citing threats to their safety. A senior Jordanian official, however, said later that the action was taken because the participants did “not wish to see Israelis.”

Some writers, including powerful and influential political figures, suffered severe professional consequences when they attempted to tackle politically sensitive issues. Former chief of the Royal Cabinet and former deputy prime minister Jawad Anani was asked to resign from his appointed Senate seat for criticizing the government in an article for the United Arab Emirates daily Al-Bayan.

The government amended the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation Law in 2000, technically ending the state monopoly on broadcast media. However, the new guidelines have not been formalized, and no initiatives to establish private broadcast stations are planned.

In late October 2001, King Abdullah called for the abolition of the Ministry of Information, which for years has enforced a host of restrictions on the press. The government replaced the ministry with the Higher Media Council, an 11-member supervisory body responsible for recommending and overseeing media policy. The council is expected to include both government officials and private citizens, though all will be appointed by the king. However, because of the council’s ambiguous mandate, it is uncertain whether the media will fare better under it than they did under the Ministry of Information.

In 2001, the government sold its shares in the Jordan Press Foundation (JPF), publisher of the influential daily Al-Rai and the English-language weekly Jordan Times. But the foundation’s majority shareholder is now the Social Security Corporation (SSC), run by the Minister of Labor. The SSC also holds shares in the daily Al-Dustour and in the once feisty Al-Arab Al-Youm, whose chairman resigned in 2000 after selling his shares, apparently due to government pressure. Other pro-government private interests also held stakes in Al-Arab Al-Youm.

The generally pro-government Jordan Press Association (JPA), which sometimes pushes for journalists’ rights, also worked to restrict press freedoms in 2001. Under the Press and Publications Law and the JPA’s bylaws, all journalists must belong to the organization in order to practice their profession. The JPA pressured the Ministry of Information to take action against foreign and Jordanian correspondents who were not JPA members but continued to work as journalists–a long-tolerated practice. Although King Abdullah promised that he would work to eliminate such restrictions, the requirement remained.

In February, the High Court of Justice upheld the JPA’s lifetime ban on editor Nidal Mansour. In September 2000, the JPA expelled Mansour, who at the time was the group’s secretary-general and editor of the weekly Al-Hadath, for launching a press freedom organization called the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ). The JPA claimed that Mansour violated the organization’s bylaws by accepting foreign funding for the CDFJ and by not working full-time as a journalist. Mansour was eventually forced to step down as the editor of Al-Hadath.

March 26

Daniel Sobleman, Haaretz
Smadar Perri, Yedioth Ahronoth
Shaul Golan, Yedioth Ahronoth
Bassam Jaber, Panorama
Suleiman al-Shafie, Channel 2
Munif Zahlaqa, Channel 2

Jordanian security officials barred six Israeli journalists from covering the Arab Summit, in Amman, Jordan. Officials asked the journalists to leave the country because they claimed Jordan could not guarantee their safety in the face of alleged threats.

Sobleman, a reporter with the Israeli daily Haaretz, described the move as a polite and diplomatic expulsion.

Jordanian authorities maintain that their actions were not politically motivated, but Agence France-Presse quoted a senior Jordanian official as saying, “This is an Arab Summit and most [participants] do not wish to see Israelis.” He added that Jordan’s priority was to ensure the comfort of its guests.

May 11

Tareq Ayyoub, Al-Jazeera

Ayyoub, an Amman-based reporter for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, was detained by Jordanian police in the capital, Amman, and transferred to intelligence headquarters, where he was interrogated for two and a half hours.

Jordanian authorities were apparently angered by Al-Jazeera’s coverage of rallies and demonstrations that day in Amman, commemorating the upcoming 53rd anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe” (the term which Arabs use to refer to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948).

Protesters clashed with police, who dispersed them violently. Ayyoub was released the following day.