Jordanian authorities raid station, arrest staff

New York, June 13, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Jordanian authorities to drop the terrorism charges and release from custody staffers of the Al-Abasiya TV station in Amman who were arrested after a recent raid and shutdown of the outlet.

“Charging journalists and media workers with terrorism offenses is a big step in the wrong direction for Jordan, which once was considered a leader in press freedom in the Middle East,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We call on authorities to immediately substantiate or scrap the charges against the Al-Abasiya TV staff members.”

Al-Abasiya is an Iraqi TV station based in Amman that covers Iraqi politics. News accounts reported that the station is known for its criticism of the Iraqi government. CPJ has not been able to access the channel’s website since Thursday. It is not clear how long the site has been down.

News reports and press freedom groups gave conflicting accounts on the date of the raid. The local press freedom group Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists and some news reports said the closure occurred on June 4, while other reports said it happened on June 9. Between 12 and 15 staff members, including the station’s owner, Haroun Mohammed, were taken into custody, according to the news accounts. It was not clear how many were journalists. Reports said the staff members included Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi citizens. The Syrian Journalists Association and the Syrian news outlet Rozana News identified four Syrian detainees as Nabeel Shoofan, Tariq Moussa, Hussein al-Bish, and Awad al-Ali.

Multiple Iraqi news reports said that the raid on the station and arrests of its staff members stemmed from an official complaint from the Iraqi government against the station. The raid came as Iraq has called for help in confronting an increasingly effective and deadly insurgency spearheaded by the Al-Qaeda splinter group, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, according to news reports.

Jordan’s director of the Audiovisual Commission, Amjad al-Qadi, was quoted in news reports on Monday as denying Iraq’s involvement and saying the station was closed because it was operating without a license. However, three days later, AFP quoted al-Qadi as saying the channel was “inciting terrorism and affecting Jordan and other countries.”

Also on Thursday, AFP cited an unnamed security official as saying the prosecutor-general of Jordan’s State Security court had charged 13 Al-Abasiya TV staff members and Mohammed with “using the Internet to carry out acts that would expose Jordanians to acts of aggression,” a charge that stems from recent amendments to Jordan’s Anti-Terrorism Law. The news reports did not cite specific Al-Abasiya TV coverage as being used as evidence for the charges.

CPJ’s calls and emails to the Audiovisual Commission and the Jordanian embassy in the U.S. were not returned.

The recent legal amendments, among other changes, expand the definition of terrorism to include “acts that would subject the kingdom to hostile acts, or harm its relations with a foreign country.” The international group Human Rights Watch Human criticized the amendments for their overly broad definition of terrorism that it said could be used to restrict free expression. Information Minister Mohammad al-Momani told The Associated Press recently that the law could be used against media outlets.

In 2013, the Iraqi government suspended 10 critical television stations after accusing them of sponsoring sectarianism and terrorism. Governments throughout the region, including Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, have often cited anti-terror legal provisions to silence critical and dissident journalists.

The press climate in Jordan has deteriorated in the past year, as the country banned hundreds of unlicensed websites and appeared on CPJ’s imprisoned census the first time since King Abdullah II came to power in 1999.