Government promises of modernization and reform have not led to greater press freedom in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In a May survey by the local Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, 70 percent of responding reporters and editors said media liberties had remained static or had deteriorated. Sixty-five percent believe that the media do not operate independently and that authorities regularly interfere with news coverage.
Although private publications abound and Jordan’s press enjoys more freedom than the norm in the region, journalists remain highly constrained by a well-established system of direct and indirect government restrictions.
In January, security agents detained Muaffak Mahadin, managing editor of the private weekly Al-Wihda (The Unity), accusing him of printing “false and harmful information” about the Jordanian armed forces. Mahadin had published an article that discussed cooperation between Jordanian troops and U.S. forces in Iraq, a sensitive topic in the kingdom. Security officials and a State Security Court prosecutor questioned the editor before releasing him the same day without charge.
In May, a State Security Court prosecutor ordered the arrest of Fahd al-Rimawi, editor-in-chief of the private weekly Al-Majd (The Glory), and accused him of violating the country’s Penal Code by harming relations with a friendly Arab country. Al-Rimawi angered authorities by writing an editorial that accused Saudi officials of subservience to the United States for their support of U.S. military objectives in Iraq. Government spokeswoman Asma Khader, herself a former human rights activist, chastised al-Rimawi, saying he should “respect certain ethical rules and take into account national interest.” The journalist was released after two days in jail; his newspaper, which a court had suspended, was allowed to resume publishing after he agreed to print an article saying that Saudi-Jordanian relations were strong and that he had not intended to harm them.
Al-Rimawi’s troubles did not end there. In September, a state security court prosecutor ordered Al-Majd‘s printer not to publish an edition of the newspaper after officials objected to articles about oil grants to Jordan from several Gulf countries. The prosecutor canceled the newspaper’s license outright a few days later, but the license was reinstated after protests from journalists.
The government proposed amendments to the Press and Publications Law that would forbid the arrest or imprisonment of journalists for press offenses. But Parliament had not approved the amendments by year’s end, and their impact would be inconsequential in any case. Provisions in the Penal Code and other laws still allow authorities to detain, prosecute, and imprison journalists for their work.
Restrictive laws are just one tool the government uses to exert control. Behind the scenes, officials employ an efficient system of indirect pressure aimed at keeping journalists in check. Phone calls and warnings from state security agents to journalists are common, dampening editorial zeal. The security service also enlists journalists to keep close tabs on their colleagues.
The country boasts dozens of private newspapers and magazines, but self-censorship remains pervasive. Journalists avoid criticism of the king, the royal family, the army, and the security services. In November, for example, editorial and op-ed pages steered clear of any commentary about King Abdullah’s decision to remove his half-brother as heir apparent. The presence of U.S. troops in the country is another off-limits topic. Private weekly newspapers tend to be more aggressive in political coverage than daily papers.
The government introduced a licensing system for private radio and TV stations in 2003, ending its monopoly over broadcast media. At least six radio stations were licensed, according to local journalists, but the government said it would not take further applications for the time being. Those that were licensed air only music and entertainment. The licensing regulations stipulate an exorbitant fee for private broadcasters seeking to air political news.