After assuming the Hashemite throne three years ago, King Abdullah II stirred hopes that he would introduce greater political openness in Jordan. But although Abdullah has expressed support for democracy and freedom of expression, human rights in the country have deteriorated.
During 2002, the government of Prime Minister Ali Abou al-Ragheb continued to undermine basic liberties. In a case that had a chilling effect on the press, a state security court in May convicted former member of Parliament Toujan al-Faisal of publishing “false information,” inciting unrest, and harming the “dignity” of the state and of government officials. The case stemmed from an open letter al-Faisal had written to Abou al-Ragheb in the Houston-based online publication Arab Times accusing him of corruption. Al-Faisal was sentenced to 18 months in jail without appeal. In June, King Abdullah pardoned her, but not before al-Faisal went on a hunger strike and her case generated international protest.
Al-Faisal was one of several Jordanian journalists detained, prosecuted, or investigated under the country’s harsh new Penal Code amendments, which Abou al-Ragheb’s government instituted in October 2001, ostensibly as part of an anti-terrorism effort. The amendments grant authorities sweeping powers to jail and fine journalists and to close publications. Some observers assailed the laws as an attempt not to combat terrorism but to muzzle dissent. In fact, by the end of 2002, it was government critics–not individuals suspected of terrorism–who were being sent before the courts.
On top of threatening legal action, officials continued to exert both direct and indirect pressure on journalists. The General Intelligence Directorate, the country’s powerful security agency, continued to monitor the media diligently. Agents questioned, detained, and threatened journalists in retaliation for their work. Reporters and editors, meanwhile, raised concerns about security forces infiltrating newspapers and using journalists as agents. Members of the media also spoke of editorial censorship, fear of dismissal for reporting on contentious issues, and increased self-censorship.
The government bullied reporters, editors, and camera crews on several occasions in an effort to block negative news. In March, security forces confiscated the film of television crews attempting to cover pro-Palestinian demonstrations and denied the journalists access to facilities to relay their footage abroad. The government closed the Amman bureau of the Qatar-based satellite television channel Al-Jazeera in August after a talk show guest criticized Jordan’s relationship with Israel and poked fun at King Abdullah’s limited knowledge of Arabic. Throughout the year, security officials harassed and questioned Al-Jazeera staff, at one point confiscating equipment from the network’s Amman-based production company.
Authorities also employed crude censorship tactics. As in the past, the government and state prosecutors imposed news blackouts on sensitive political stories. In March, a state prosecutor barred the media from reporting on the state’s investigation into®a massive bank defrauding scheme involving a Jordanian businessman with alleged ties to the security services. That month, officials interrupted the print run of the weekly Al-Majd and ordered it to remove stories about the alleged scandal. The weekly Al-Hadath received the same order. When the businessman, Majd al-Shamaylah, was extradited from Australia in November, prosecutors reimposed the blackout.
Also in November, the government launched military operations in the southern city of Maan to root out what it called a “gang of outlaws” that had taken control of the town. The army declared the city a closed military area and barred local and international media from entering, except at selected times by official escort. In the capital, Amman, authorities detained Al-Jazeera’s former bureau chief and a local Jordanian reporter for their coverage of the incident.
Nonetheless, compared to its neighbors, such as Iraq and Syria, Jordan boasts a lively print media. Still, the country’s three main dailies practice self-censorship. The daily Al Arab al-Youm ceased being the force it once was when its chairman resigned two years ago, apparently due partly to government pressure. Several privately owned weeklies often criticize the government, but they have few readers.
The pro-government Jordan Press Association (JPA), a representative body for journalists, has at times restricted press freedoms by pressuring or expelling journalists who violate its regulations. By law, all journalists must belong to the organization to work in Jordan. The JPA’s bylaws also bar members from having direct contact with Israel; violators face suspension or expulsion. In January, the JPA threatened action against Abdullah Etoum, editor of the weekly Al-Hilal, for traveling to Israel to interview Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres. The case was dropped after Etoum apologized and pledged to have no more contacts with Israel.
Since assuming the throne, King Abdullah has promised a number of initiatives aimed at modernizing the local media. In 2001, he called for the abolishment of the Information Ministry, which has regulated the media and enforced press restrictions. The ministry was to be replaced by the High Media Council, a 12-member supervisory body with an ambiguous mandate, including recommending media policy to the government. The council has so far floundered, however, marred by resignations and an uncertain role, and the Information Ministry remains in place.
In 2002, the government opened a media investment zone in hopes of attracting international news organizations to the country–an idea that has been long in the offing. So far, only one production company operates in the zone, providing studio space and media equipment for potential clients.
The government maintains its monopoly over radio and television, despite amending a law in 2000 that paves the way for private stations. Authorities have yet to issue the guidelines for such stations. Satellite dishes are relatively widespread, and many Jordanians enjoy access to regional and international news channels. The Internet, meanwhile, has become increasingly popular, accessible in schools, homes, and Internet cafés.
Fahd al-Rimawi, Al-Majd
Al-Rimawi, editor of the independent weekly Al-Majd, was summoned by a State Security Court prosecutor in the capital, Amman, and accused of publishing “false information.” He was subsequently
ordered detained for 15 days. The arrest stemmed from several Al-Majd articles that criticized Prime Minister Ali Abou al-Ragheb’s government. Al-Rimawi was held in Amman’s Juwaydeh Prison until his release on January 16.
The State Security Court banned the March 4 issue of Al-Majd unless the paper’s management removed two articles about alleged government corruption, one detailing a large-scale financial scandal, and the other criticizing former internal security chief Samih el-Bateekhi.
According to Al-Majd editor Fahd al-Rimawi, the March 4 issue had already been sent out for printing when officials ordered the ban. Another local newspaper, Al-Rai, handles Al-Majd‘s printing. Before Al-Majd could be printed, Al-Rai staffers received a fax from the State Security Court prosecutor general ordering them not to print Al-Majd. When al-Rimawi contacted the State Security Court, he was told that the paper could only be published if he agreed to remove the two offending articles.
Under Penal Code amendments passed in 2001, publications can be suspended or permanently banned if they print information that may “undermine national unity or the country’s reputation,” “violate basic social norms,” “sow the seeds of hatred,” or “harm the honor or reputation of individuals,” among numerous other restrictions. Offending journalists face prison sentences of up to six months and fines of up to 5,000 Jordanian dinars (US$7,000).
Associated Press Television News
Reuters TV, Associated Press Television News, and Al-Jazeera were barred by state-run Jordan TV from using its facilities to relay footage of pro-Palestinian students demonstrating at Jordan University, according to sources at Al-Jazeera.
Jordanian authorities confiscated footage of pro-Palestinian students demonstrating at Jordan University from a Reuters TV crew at the King Hussein Bridge, which links Jordan with the West Bank, according to CPJ sources.
Abu Dhabi TV
Al Manar TV
State-owned Jordan TV (JTV) refused to let journalists from Lebanon’s Al Manar TV, Al-Jazeera, and Abu Dhabi TV use JTV facilities to feed film of pro-Palestinian rallies at the Baqa’a refugee camp outside of the capital, Amman, unless they agreed to make major content edits to the footage, according to sources at Al-Jazeera. The stations agreed to the changes and were eventually allowed to use JTV’s facilities.
Associated Press Television News
Abu Dhabi TV
Security forces confiscated the camera equipment of journalists working with Associated Press Television News, Reuters TV, and Abu Dhabi TV after they filmed a pro-Palestinian rally at Jordan University, according to CPJ sources. Officials returned the cameras without the tapes approximately 45 minutes later.
Toujan al-Faisal, free-lance
Al-Faisal, a writer and former member of Jordan’s Parliament, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. A State Security Court in the capital, Amman, convicted al-Faisal of publishing “false information abroad,” “harming the dignity of the state and undermining the reputation of the state and its individuals,” and “incitement to unrest,” a source at the hearing told CPJ.
The case against al-Faisal came after she penned an open letter in March to King Abdullah in the Houston-based online publication Arab Times accusing Prime Minister Ali Abou al-Ragheb of corruption. She had also recently criticized the Jordanian government on a number of satellite television stations, including the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera.
Zayd al-Radaydeh, one of al-Faisal’s lawyers, said that the team was prevented from mounting a proper defense when the judges refused their requests to call Prime Minister Abou al-Ragheb as a witness. Al-Faisal was detained on March 16. On June 26, the king pardoned the journalist but did not overturn her conviction.
The Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera had its license to operate in Jordan revoked by Information Minister Muhammad Adwan, who also barred staff from working for the station in the country. The move came after a guest on the August 7 broadcast of the debate program “Opposite Direction” criticized Jordan’s relationship with Israel and poked fun at King Abdullah’s limited knowledge of Arabic. According to international reports, Adwan accused the station of inciting “sedition” in Jordan and of “defaming” the royal family.
Station staff said they only learned about the closure after the official news agency Petra reported the minister’s statements. In 1998, Al-Jazeera’s Amman bureau was closed for several weeks after participants in another show criticized Jordan.
Hisham Bustani, Al-Arab
Bustani, an activist who penned an article in the bimonthly Lebanese magazine Al-Arab, was arrested for an article he penned titled, “The Mechanisms of Violation and Oppression: The case of [Jordan’s] Juweidah Prison.” Bustani told CPJ that he was held for six days without charge and was only questioned by intelligence agents on his first day of detention. He also said that intelligence officers threatened him, telling him that he could be turned over to the State Security Court at any time. Bustani said that the issue of Al-Arab, which has a small circulation in Jordan, was banned.