The High Court of Justice ruled in January that last May’s highly restrictive amendments to the Press and Publications Law (PPL), sharply curtailing the work of the country’s outspoken independent weekly newspapers, were unconstitutional. But the reprieve is temporary, since the court ruling faulted the means of ratification—royal decree, without public or parliamentary debate—and not the substance of the amendments. The next battle for Jordan’s free press is thus destined to be fought in parliament, since the government is likely to try the constitutional route to enacting amendments similar to the ones that triggered a firestorm of domestic and international criticism last spring.
On May 17, six months before Jordan’s parliamentary elections, the cabinet of Prime Minister Abdel Salam Majalli promulgated temporary amendments to the 1993 press law that severely restricted the independent weeklies, which had flourished since the lifting of martial law in 1992. This surprise unilateral move by the executive branch while parliament was out of session prompted vocal and furious opposition in Jordan. The amendments followed nearly four years of legal harassment of the weeklies, which have been the primary outlet for independent news and opinion about the increasingly unpopular October 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the country’s economic performance under IMF-led structural adjustment reform, government corruption, and human rights abuses. The targeting of the independent weeklies is part of a broader pattern of increasing state restrictions on free expression, assembly, and association. "The king wants everything to be under his control. The weekly press weakened him," said a publisher who requested anonymity.
CPJ has documented a pattern of harassment and criminal prosecution of independent Jordanian journalists since privately owned newspapers began to appear in the early 1990s. In October, I traveled to Jordan and spent a week meeting with and interviewing newspaper editors and reporters—many of whose cases CPJ had taken up over the last few years—who provided detailed accounts of the state’s techniques for muzzling the press. In addition, I met with government officials, including Minister of State for Information Affairs Samir Mutawe and Bilal al-Tal, director of the Ministry of Information’s Press and Publications Department, to express the committee’s concern about the deterioration of press freedom in Jordan. And during a two-day seminar on press freedom in Jordan organized by two local nongovernmental organizations, the New Jordan Research Center and the Arab Media Institute, and the London-based ARTICLE 19 (International Centre Against Censorship), I sampled the full range of views about the climate for the press, hearing from Jordanian journalists, local and international human rights activists, and senior government officials.
The May press amendments came at a time when the convergence of political and economic pressures made the state particularly sensitive to scrutiny. According to Jordanian political scientist Radwan Abdullah, "The policies of the regime are mostly faltering, domestically and in foreign policy, and [the king] finds them increasingly difficult to defend. So he’s growing more insecure, more defensive and less tolerant of attacks by the opposition." Public frustration has been intertwined with— some would say fueled by—worsening economic conditions for most Jordanians. According to a 1997 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), unemployment and inflation increased between 1995 and 1996 and there was a 13-percent drop in the standard of living. USAID noted that "since the Gulf War, the condition of the poor and the income gap between the middle class and the poor has widened. Many Jordanians unfortunately blame this reality on the economic reform process which exacerbates underlying skepticism regarding the peace process, the benefits of which are considered unrealized by the vast majority of Jordanians." A Jordanian political observer who asked not to be named said: "This government speaks about democracy and free expression, but after the peace with Israel, the situation changed drastically. Plus, the election of Netanyahu intensified the popular resentment in Jordan—the settlements, the punishment of Palestinians. Such events affect Jordan directly."
The amendments imposed sweeping restrictions on the press, giving the state broad powers to suspend, fine, and permanently close newspapers found to be in violation of the many vaguely worded provisions. "We have brought the martial law mentality into law," said Leith Shubeilat, a former member of parliament and a leading government critic. The amendments also ushered in a new era of self-censorship among journalists and editors. "Before the new law, we would never talk about the king but we would criticize the government for its concessions to Israel," said a representative of a now-suspended weekly newspaper. "Now, we can’t say anything." Even the partially government-owned dailies have been affected by the new law. A journalist from the daily Al-Dustur said that the newspaper had withheld some 20 articles and columns that he had written about "the retreat of democracy in Jordan."
As the November parliamentary elections approached, tensions rose between the government and opposition parties. In July, eight secular opposition groups and the country’s largest political opposition party, the Islamic Action Front (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) announced that they would boycott the elections. One of the demands of the boycotters was revocation of the press law amendments. Former member of parliament Fares Nabulsi observed in late October: "I think that the government wanted this law because [it] didn’t want any opposition. Sure there were unfavorable things in the press, but this should not make you close down newspapers just before the elections."
Despite the suspension of martial law in April 1992 and the passage of the PPL in May 1993, which allowed for the private ownership of newspapers, Jordanian journalists remained burdened by restrictions. Although the PPL canceled the state’s previously unlimited powers to censor, suspend, or permanently close newspapers, it permitted authorities wide berth to discourage and punish independent journalism. Since the law’s inception, the Ministry of Information has employed its vaguely worded bans to haul journalists to court for coverage of sensitive topics such as government corruption, criticism of the peace treaty with Israel, and negative reporting about friendly Arab states. Another favored tool has been the penal code, whose ambiguously worded provisions allow lengthy prison sentences and stiff fines for journalists convicted of such offenses as "inciting sedition," defamation, innuendo, or publishing false news. "Let’s call the Press and Publications Law the first line of defense," said Leith Shubeilat. "If [a journalist] gets by that, then [the authorities] can use the penal code ... The journalists are terrified of this."
Between July 1993 and July 1996, the state prosecuted newspapers under the press law and penal code 63 times—all but five of them against weekly newspapers. Al-Bilad, one of the papers that had its license revoked, currently has 26 cases pending against it, the majority dating back to 1993. Another paper, the popular weekly Shihan, which continues to publish, had 29 pending cases in September 1996.
"The weekly press played a large role in providing information about government corruption," noted a journalist from Shihan. "And Jordan’s relationship with Israel opened the door for the weekly press to seize the issue from the dailies." Indeed, in the period leading up to and following the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the weeklies took the lead in reporting and advocating opposition to the accord and normalization of relations with Israel.
In response, the Ministry of Information kept the pressure on the weeklies throughout 1994. On August 2 of that year, Nidal Mansour, then-editor in chief of Al-Bilad, was detained for what authorities described as "publishing an article on the activities of parties fighting against normalization with Israel." Mansour was detained a second time later in the month for publishing what prosecutors said were statements by political parties opposed to peace. In September, Fahd Rimawi and Hilmi Asmar, editors in chief of the weeklies Al-Majd and Al-Sabeel respectively, were summoned by prosecutors for questioning about their newspapers’ editorial policy of opposition to peace with Israel. In all, a dozen cases were brought against the weeklies during 1994 for coverage of opposition to the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
In reaction, eight opposition political parties issued a letter to Prime Minister Abdel Salam Majalli on September 25, 1994, condemning the government’s moves to stifle the dissemination of independent views. "Any criticism is considered slander against the government and any word is interpreted as harmful to national unity because this interpretation justifies legal action," the statement read. "The government position aims at preventing views opposed to normalization of ties with Israel from reaching the people." Expressing its view of the state’s attempts to monopolize news and commentary about the Israel-Jordan peace process, the Islamist weekly Al-Sabil noted: "The policy being pursued by the official and semi-official mass media organs is clearly forging the will of the Jordanians. Not all Jordanians support the government’s policy and its panting after Rabin and Peres, not all Jordanians are happy over upcoming meetings with Rabin and Peres, not all Jordanians believe in the government’s justifications for its rush."
Criticism of the peace treaty was not the only source of irritation, however. The Ministry of Information invoked the PPL and penal code against journalists who wrote critically of friendly Arab regimes. In one prominent case in 1995, authorities charged Al-Majd editor in chief Fahd Rimawi with defamation under the penal code for publishing an opinion piece titled "Glubb Pasha Should Leave," which called for the removal of Bahrain’s British-born security chief, Ian Henderson. Another suit was triggered by an article about capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. "[One] of the phony accusations that [has] been made [is] that the press [is] slandering other countries and Jordan’s image abroad," said Taher Adwan, editor in chief of the independent, privately owned daily Al-Arab al-Youm, launched in May 1997. "This is actually factual reporting, but the government says that it is harming the country’s international relations."
The desire to restore damaged relations with the Gulf states in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War played a role in the government’s sensitivity to the pro-Iraqi tilt of the weekly press. In January 1994, Prime Minister Majalli criticized the press for harming improved relations with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as a result of its pro-Iraq positions: "Unfortunately, and I say it clearly to the Jordanian media, the Jordanian media play a part in not getting this relation back...Every time we almost get it back, a couple of articles go in some of these media and it becomes strained again."
The weekly press sustained its critical stance, and the king reacted by threatening reprisal. The king was infuriated by caustic commentary that followed the assasination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 and his attendance at Rabin’s funeral. One article in Al-Sabil, titled "One Less Murderer," (a reference to a statement made by Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, after the assassination of Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki in Malta), provoked the king to lash out at the press upon his return to Jordan. "Do not destroy in the name of democracy," Hussein admonished, adding that those who threaten national unity will be "my foe forever." Shortly thereafter, he asked that parliament consider a tougher law to keep the press in line. In June 1996, the king again referred to a new law: "I believe the law will be sent to the House of Representatives soon.... Then, God willing, the media will be in the hands of responsible people who can perform their role in serving the homeland and the nation and in reflecting the true picture of this country." Although a parliamentary committee discussed possible amendments to the PPL, no action was taken. Journalists and other observers predicted then that it was just a matter of time before the government would impose tighter restrictions on the press.
In 1996, a marked increase in prosecutions and government warnings against "irresponsible" journalism set the stage for a clampdown in September. The weekly press increasingly came under fire for its often-sensational, tabloid-style news coverage and failure to check facts and sources. Headline stories such as "Four-Year-Old Child is Married to a Fairy and Practices Sexual Intercourse with Her" and "Parties Start After Midnight and Homosexuals are Known" were sometimes splashed across the front pages of newspapers, causing outrage in parliament, particularly from Islamist deputies and the Jordan Press Association. Articles such as these made easy targets in the government’s attacks against the weekly press. "The government took advantage of the morals issue. They said: ‘This is our excuse,’" said a former government official who requested anonymity. "It had some support on that."
In the wake of internationally publicized riots and unrest in the southern town of Kerak in August 1996, following the government’s decision to lift state subsidies on bread, several journalists were arrested for their coverage of the disturbances. Among them were four journalists from Al-Bilad who were charged under the penal code with "inciting strife" and "publishing false information." They face up to three years in prison if convicted of the charges, which are still pending. Following the arrests, one editor said: "They are trying to teach journalists not to touch sensitive issues."
In the days leading up to the abrupt implementation of the press amendments, two news stories reportedly enraged the king. One charged that he had given money to the families of the Israeli school girls who were murdered by a Jordanian soldier, Ahmed Dakamseh, in March, and another alleged that the king’s daughter had studied in Israel. Shortly after their publication, the king said in a speech on May 14: "This is enough. We can no longer take it."
On May 17, while the parliament was out of session, the cabinet promulgated the 14 amendments to the press law, introducing broad and ambiguous content bans; greater powers to suspend or close publications; exorbitant fines; and sharply increased capital requirements for both daily and weekly publications. The amendments were "temporary," subject to approval or amendment by the new parliament, but the measures had an immediate impact on the press.
The first casualty was the weekly Abed Rabbo, which often satirized public officials and had run into legal difficulties under the 1993 law. It voluntarily closed down in June, fearing financial penalties. "The new law is elastic, and it can be applied to almost any article we publish," said Yusuf Gheisan, the paper’s editor. Gheisan was referring to the sharp increases in fines mandated under the amendments, ranging from JD 15,000 (US$21,135) to JD 25,000 (US$35,225) for violations of the content bans.
On September 2, Al-Bilad became the second casualty when the Court of First Instance ruled that the paper had unlawfully published information about the security forces when it ran a news story about the arrest of the husband of a woman who had carried out an armed attack against Israeli soldiers. Although the article had been based on a Reuters story, the paper was fined 15,000JD (US$21,135). Four other cases are pending, and the newspaper faces up to 200,000JD (US$281,800) in fines. The weekly Al-Hadath was also charged for publishing a summary of the Reuters article.
But it was Article 24 of the amendments that had the greatest impact on the weekly press. It requires daily newspapers to increase their capital base from 50,000JD (US$70,450) to 600,000JD (US$845,400), and weeklies from 15,000JD (US $21,135) to 300,000JD (US$422,700). Government officials attempted to justify the exorbitant capital requirements as a mechanism for ensuring that newspapers meet their financial obligations. "All that we have done is to raise the level of capital that media organizations must have so that they can meet their obligations, at least toward their workers who are complaining about their wages [not] being paid," Prime Minister Majalli said in an interview with the London-based weekly Al-Wasat. But most observers agree that the new capital requirements were specifically designed to target the financially shaky weekly newspapers. "If we don’t manage to raise our capital, then we don’t have any other option but to close and give up," said Fahd Rimawi, editor in chief of Al-Majd, after the amendments were implemented, adding that these sums "can hardly be met."
Indeed, few weeklies were able to meet the requirement. Thirteen were eventually suspended by order of the Ministry of Information between September 23 and 24, for failure to comply with the registered capital minimum, leaving only four independent weeklies publishing. In November, 12 of the 13 papers had their publishing licenses revoked—only the weekly Al-Majd was able to raise the required capital mandated by the law and resume publishing.
The secrecy surrounding the May amendments provoked widespread condemnation from the daily and weekly press, as well as Jordan’s independent professional associations—a major locus of organized political opposition in Jordan. Attempts by opposition deputies to convene an extraordinary session of parliament to debate the new measures failed.
In May and June, the heads of the professional associations threatened to resign in protest, only to back down later under pressure. Meanwhile, successive attempts by the 450-member Jordan Press Association to convene a session to oppose the amendments failed to meet the required quorum. The opposition fizzled. "It’s fear," said Leith Shubeilat. "They’re scared to death." Veiled government threats against the professional associations may have also contributed to the retreat.
King Hussein continued to criticize the press after the passage of the amendments. In a June 8 speech in Irbid, he said: "One reads columnists’ articles cursing America one day, President Clinton on another, Turkey the next day, Netanyahu on a third [sic] day and so on, in addition to cursing the state, the government, the performance of the government...all without any objective reasoning and without defining the problems or exerting positive efforts to address these problems."
The pressure worked. "We used to publish the press releases of the leftist opposition parties but after the amendments, we stopped," one publisher explained. "We refrained from publishing certain cartoons and some information related to the army. Nothing was published about the police. I stopped writing about Jordanian affairs and began to write columns about [political developments in] other countries. If there were good relations between King Hussein and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, I would write something good about Mubarak."
In addition to the explicit content bans mandated under the law, authorities have also used indirect means to pressure the independent newspapers. One target of these intimidation tactics was the newly formed daily Al-Arab al-Youm, which has made a name for itself through its often-provocative news coverage of sensitive political issues. After the newspaper provided detailed coverage of the Israeli Mossad’s failed attempt in September to assassinate Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman, editorial staffers were summoned by intelligence officers in an apparent attempt to curb their investigative zeal. Editor in chief Taher Adwan described the government officials’ strong-arm tactics. "It started with telephone calls," he said. "[Deputy Prime Minister] Jawed Anani called and asked that we retract the information we published about the arrest of armed groups," a reference to an article published in June about individuals arrested for smuggling arms into Jordan. Adwan said that he had received a telephone call from Minister of Information Samir Mutawe, who demanded that the paper publish a front-page story about the Ministry’s criticism of the press, or face prosecution for having published the article. "One week later, we were referred to court...At the time the Minister threatened me, he said he would take me to court if I didn’t publish news on the front page [attacking the press]." Government ministries then temporarily withdrew their advertising, in one case following a story about falsified voter cards in the lead-up to the elections. Also, in late October, the Ministry of Tourism distributed a circular to government agencies advising they stop advertising in Al-Arab al-Youm after it published an article about corruption at the ministry.
Adwan insists that his newspaper’s coverage will not be compromised by government pressure. However, Al-Arab al-Youm journalists said that that the paper has refrained from crossing certain boundaries. "This week the editor in chief refused to run three columns," columnist Yousef Gheishan said on November 2. He added that two of his columns defended an opposition candidate whose son had been arrested for allegedly selling drugs, hinting that the arrest had been a set up designed to discredit the candidate. Gheisan estimates that 30 to 40 of his columns have been rejected by Al-Arab al-Youm because of politically sensitive content since he began writing it in June 1994. Leith Shubeilat, who writes a weekly column for Al-Arab al-Youm, maintained that editorial self-censorship was a fact of life now for the Jordanian press. He said that editors had rejected three of his columns because of positions he took on politically sensitive topics, and he offered copies of several articles which he said his editors had toned down or cut to omit material that might anger the government. An open letter that Shubeilat addressed to the director of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department, calling for the release of Ali Sneid, a young writer who was arrested in September, was rejected by every newspaper in Jordan. At the time, Sneid was on trial in the State Security Court for violating the dignity of King Hussein, a penal code offense that carries a maximum prison term of three years.
Atef Joulani, editor in chief of the Islamist weekly Al-Sabil, described telephone calls that he received from Bilal al-Tal of the Ministry of Information’s Press and Publications Department, warning that his paper "should be careful." He also received calls from other government officials: "Two months ago, we published an article about how a minister had appointed one of his nephews in the ministry. We published it without any mention of his name or the ministry," Joulani said. "The minister called me after the article was published and said that ‘I am the person who you mean in the article.’ We then published his response."
Along with the assault on the weeklies, the state has stepped up the frequency of distribution bans on foreign newspapers for what authorities have deemed their undesirable coverage of Jordanian affairs. Censorship of foreign publications—the responsibility of the Ministry of Information’s Press and Publications Department—was ostensibly ended in February by the government of then-Prime Minister Abdel Karim Kabariti, which chose instead to refer "violators" of the law to the courts. But the Majalli government has reversed this policy. In the months leading up to the elections, numerous foreign newspapers—including the London-based daily Al-Hayat—were barred from distribution in the country. In October alone, 15 issues of the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi were seized in 18 days. Journalists from the paper suspect that the crackdown stemmed from its detailed follow-up coverage of the failed assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal.
Some journalists and political observers in Jordan remain convinced that the government intended to use the amendments to sideline the weekly press in advance of the elections. "[The government] want[s] to show international opinion [makers] that Jordan will have free and fair elections," one journalist said in late October. "There are already problems with the elections and the falsification of voter cards. The weeklies would have publicized these issues." A journalist from the daily Al-Dustur added: "The government didn’t want the weeklies to support the opposition."
The election was certainly an important proximate factor in the clampdown on the press. But, given the pattern of harassment of the weekly press in the 1990s, the enactment of the amendments marked the culmination of the state’s growing intolerance of the segment of the press which voiced criticism of state domestic and foreign policy. The pre-election period was the critical time to take decisive action.
Whether Jordan’s parliament will put its stamp of approval on a similar press law in 1998 remains uncertain. In light of the events of the past year, journalists are prepared for the worst. As Taher Adwan of Al-Arab al-youm put it: "These people pretend that they are the protectors of the free press, but they are really its executioners."