The new government of Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez, formed in October 2003, pledged to improve basic freedoms in Jordan. But if the last two years are any indication, the task will be formidable.
Since 2001, Jordan has witnessed a sharp erosion of liberties, chief among them press freedom. After King Abdullah II dissolved Parliament in June 2001, the government of then Prime Minister Ali Abou al-Ragheb enacted by fiat more than 200 “temporary laws,” including restrictive Penal Code amendments with harsh new penalties for the media. The amendments, adopted shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States under the guise of combating terrorism, allowed the government to jail and fine journalists and close publications that violate a number of broadly defined offenses.
In a surprise but welcome move, the government repealed the most restrictive amendment in April, apparently in response to local and international protest, but it was not soon enough. Several journalists and one opposition figure had already been detained, prosecuted, or investigated for their outspokenness.
In January 2003, officials detained three journalists from the weekly Al-Hilal after the paper published an article purporting to describe the sexual relations between the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha. Editor-in-Chief Nasser Qamash, Managing Editor Roman Haddad, and writer Mohannad Mubaidin were sentenced in early February to prison terms ranging from two to six months for publishing “false rumors,” “insulting the dignity of the state,” and causing instability. The court retroactively banned Al-Hilal for two months beginning January 16, when the State Security Court prosecutor had initially halted the magazine’s publication. On February 18, the court converted the prison sentences against Qamash and Haddad into fines, and both men were released. Mubaidin, the article’s author, served out a six-month sentence.
In September, the general prosecutor banned the September 23 issue of the private weekly Al-Wihda. Staffers said the ban came after editors refused to comply with the prosecutor’s demand that certain articles be removed before the paper appeared on newsstands. One editor said the authorities objected in particular to an article alleging that political detainees had been tortured in custody. In October, security agents ordered the newspaper to remove a cartoon from its galleys that depicted Prime Minister al-Faisal and Foreign Minister Marwan Musher as cooperating with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The paper replaced it with another cartoon and printed the issue.
The country’s powerful internal security service remains one of the greatest impediments to independent media in the country. Agents frequently exert backdoor pressure on newspapers through admonishing phone calls or warnings. The security service also enlists journalists to keep close tabs on their colleagues.
With the U.S.-led war in Iraq looming in February, newspapers failed to cover the controversial presence of U.S. troops in Jordan or even the deployment of Patriot missile batteries to protect the country against a possible missile attack by Saddam Hussein. Publications also played down or avoided coverage of antiwar demonstrations in the capital, Amman. In February, the editor of the leading pro-government daily Al-Rai told The Washington Post that he was not afraid of government reprisals against his paper because he was so heavily censoring its pages.
Foreign journalists in Jordan fared better than their local counterparts. In the months before the Iraq war, hundreds of reporters descended on Amman in hopes of securing Iraqi visas or, once hostilities began, of crossing the border to Baghdad. Most foreign correspondents experienced few difficulties reporting from the country and in many cases praised the government for accommodating them. Before the war, the government designated the area along the Iraqi border a closed military zone, and there were reports that Jordanian forces briefly detained some Western journalists for filming there. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, most reporters were able to cross the border without incident.
The Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, which was banned in Jordan in 2002 for airing a program during which a guest poked fun at King Abdullah’s limited knowledge of classical Arabic, was allowed to resume broadcasting in March 2003.
In December, the government created a new licensing system for private radio and television stations, ending the state’s monopoly on broadcast media. The regulations for news stations were not entirely clear at press time, but the government-appointed Audio Visual Commission, which said it was already reviewing license requests, retains veto power over all applications. Licensing fees are expensive, between 25,000 and 100,000 Jordanian dinars (US$35,000 and US$140,000) for television. Radio and TV stations wanting to cover news and political issues are required to pay 50 percent above the normal licensing fees. At year’s end, it remained unclear which stations would receive licenses.