Press freedom news briefs from Around the world

Call for crackdown on China’s press
In its effort to revive traditional socialist values, the Chinese Communist Party at its annual plenum in October resolved to tighten its grip on ideology and exert greater social control–a move that offers little hope for the relaxing of press restrictions in China.

The Communist Party ordered all state-run institutions to subscribe to the party’s publications. And, at a conference jointly held by the Propaganda Department and Ministry of Post and Telecommuni-cations in the run-up to the plenum, Xu Guanchuan, the deputy head of the Propaganda Department, called for a crackdown on unauthorized publications and the closure of any publication defying the party line.

President’s health is nobody’s business in Zaire
An article in a Zairian opposition newspaper, Le Palmares, that cited a Swiss source who said Zairian ruler Mobutu Sese Seko would be “operated on for throat cancer after undergoing a surgery on his prostrate” cost the publisher his freedom and got the paper suspended indefinitely. Michel Luya was arrested on Sept. 17 and faces up to 12 months in prison. The minister of information, Boguo Makeli, said that the article in question “attacks” the president, whose inviolability is constitutionally guaranteed.

IFOR videotape of beating in Bosnia released after CPJ protests
As American free-lance journalist Mike Kirsch was being beaten on Oct. 11 by Serb security officers for videotaping a destroyed house in Jusici, a Muslim village controlled by the Bosnian Serb Republic, a U.S. Army cameraman operating under the command of the Peace Implementation Force (IFOR) was videotaping the incident.

IFOR, however, refused to give copies of its videotape to Kirsch or to Insight News Television (INTV) of Great Britain, the organization for which he was working.

CPJ wrote to both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and to IFOR to protest Kirsch’s beating–a blatant violation of side agreements to the Dayton Peace Accords guaranteeing press freedom–and to urge that Kirsch and INTV be given a copy of the tape. Initially told by IFOR that a police investigation precluded release of the tape and that IFOR “would in any case not normally make our internal material available to others,” CPJ and Kirsch persisted, with success. In an Oct. 23 letter, IFOR legal adviser Maj. Wiebe Baron told CPJ that the investigation was complete, and, as a result, IFOR would provide INTV with the videotape. He also said that disciplinary action would be taken against the local police commander for his officers’ actions on Oct. 11.

Feeling the heat in Jordan
The Jordanian government has sent independent journalists a clear message in 1996: Report critically on “sensitive” issues and prepare to pay a high price.

“Journalists are not above the law,” said Minister of Information Marwan al-Mu’asher on July 30, announcing the government’s intention to punish those engaged in “harmful” journalism.

One law applied with alarming frequency is the infamous Press and Publications Law of 1993. Its vaguely worded text has been used by state prosecutors to detain, charge, and inflict heavy fines on journalists who cross the line of acceptable journalism as defined by the state. “The past three months have witnessed the highest level of arrests of journalists since 1993,” said the editor of a popular Arabic weekly newspaper. “They are trying to teach journalists not to touch sensitive issues.”

Such issues have included the government’s controversial decision in August to abolish state subsidies on bread, and the popular demonstrations in and around the southern city of al-Karak that resulted. Nayef al-Tawara and Khaled Kasasbeh, the publisher and editor in chief, respectively, of the Arabic-weekly Al-Bilad, were arrested along with three staff reporters in connection with an Aug. 21 article that reported on civilian casualties during clashes between demonstrators and the Jordanian army. All five men were charged with “inciting sedition” under Jordan’s Penal Code after prosecutors invoked a contentious article in the press law allowing them to criminally prosecute publishing violations under the Penal Code. As a result, the journalists face possible prison sentences of up to three years each instead of the usual monetary fines called for by the Press and Publications Law of 1993.

Jordanian law has been applied with equal harshness to those who express independent political opinions. Shihan journalist Nahed Hattar was arrested on Oct. 3 and charged with “insulting the king,” “harming national unity,” and “incit[ing] the public” for a series of articles in which he professed support for the concept of unifying Syria and Jordan. Under the Penal Code, he faces a sentence of one-and-a-half years to three years in prison if convicted. Similarly, writer Ahmed Awaidi al-Abaddi was charged on Oct. 8 with “harming national unity” for an interview in Shihan in which he expressed his view that Palestinian refugees in Jordan should relocate to areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Abaddi awaits possible monetary fines and even imprisonment if convicted.

Thus far, it appears that the government’s campaign against the press has achieved its desired effect. Said one editor: “Now we try not to publish things that are too strong. We have stayed away from the sensitive issues.”