Draft Press Law Imperils Jordanian Journalists

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August 3, 1998

The Honorable Members of Parliament
c/o The Honorable Sa'd Hayel Srour
Speaker
Chamber of Deputies
Amman, Jordan


The Honorable Members of Parliament:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-governmental organization of journalists devoted to upholding press freedom worldwide, writes to register our deep concern about the draft press law approved last week by parliament's National Guidance Committee (NGC). In our view, the draft law constitutes a grave threat to press freedom in Jordan, despite the NGC's laudable amendment of several highly restrictive provisions of the original bill submitted by the cabinet last month. If passed, the draft will significantly restrict the internationally recognized right of journalists to report news and opinion freely.

The revised draft, as published in the daily Al-Rai on July 30, contains numerous articles that grant authorities sweeping powers to censor, fine, and suspend newspapers found to be in violation of a variety of vaguely worded prohibitions. Of particular concern is Article 36, which bans outright, among other things, the publication of any news or information which relates to the armed forces and security forces; "infringes on the independence of the judiciary"; "defames the heads of Arab, Islamic, or friendly states"; contains "false rumors"; "disseminates information on deviation or moral corruption"; or which "instigates strikes, sit-ins, or public gatherings in violation of the law." Such statutes allow authorities wide berth to punish journalism they regard as critical or unfavorable.

Over the past five years, CPJ has documented dozens of cases where authorities have employed similar provisions from the 1993 Press and Publications Law (PPL) to haul journalists to court for their critical coverage of sensitive political topics such as alleged government corruption, Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel, and the policies of fellow Arab states. Although fines under the current draft law have been significantly reduced from the original draft, Article 46 calls for fines as high as 10,000JD. Repeat offenders of these and other provisions of the bill are required to pay an amount double that of the initial fine. More troubling, however, is the power the draft gives to the courts to indefinitely close down newspapers for matters of "public interest" or "national security" (Article 49)&emdash;an ambiguous prescription that is subject to broad interpretation. Collectively, these powers to sanction the press will have a chilling effect on journalists and will lead to an inevitable increase in self-censorship and to the possible closure of publications.

Other restrictions on the content of journalists' work include Article 38, which appears to authorize blanket censorship on court proceedings and criminal investigations. It states that publications may not report on "what the investigative authorities or court are assigned if it influences the investigation, the court proceedings, or the status of the people involved." In March, authorities used similar language found in the PPL when the State Security prosecutor banned all media coverage of the investigation and trial of Leith Shubeilat, the prominent opposition figure who at the time was standing trial for allegedly inciting an illegal demonstration in the southern town of Ma'an in late February. A similar blackout was imposed on coverage of the April 8 killings of lawyer Hanna Naddeh, his son Suhail, and prominent psychiatrist Awni Saad.

In addition to the prohibitions outlined in Articles 36 and 38, the draft bill empowers authorities to pre-censor any foreign publication entering the kingdom (Articles 30 and 36)&emdash;a practice currently employed by the Press and Publications Department (PPD). Article 30 states that distributors or printers of foreign publications are required to deposit two copies of each publication to the PPD director prior to distribution, and the director has the power to ban a publication's distribution if its contents are judged to violate any provision of the law. Over the past year, dozens of issues of foreign newspapers such as the London-based dailies Al-Hayat and Al-Quds al-Arabi have been banned by the PPD for what it has deemed their unfavorable coverage of Jordanian affairs. At the same time, Article 34 gives the director of the PPD similar powers over the distribution of books. Articles 30 and 34 serve only to further legitimize the practice of censorship in flagrant violation of the most fundamental norms for free expression.

Finally, CPJ is deeply concerned by several other provisions of the draft law, including: Article 16, which grants the cabinet the authority to approve licenses for publications; Article 12, which stipulates capital requirements for newspapers ranging from 50,000JD to 500,000JD; Professional requirements for journalists, including mandatory membership in the Jordan Press Association (Articles 2 and 9) and the requirement that chief editors have eight years of experience (Article 22); Articles 18, 23, 50, which specify licensing and other procedural requirements, and under which noncompliance is punishable by suspension or closure of newspapers. These provisions, in our view, will serve only to restrict journalists from the free practice of their profession. As such, we view them as clear violations of the right to "seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Committee to Protect Journalists respectfully urges the honorable members of parliament to adopt the following recommendations in order to bring Jordan's regulation of the press in accordance with international standards:

Guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." This includes the freedom of the press to disseminate a diversity of news and opinions, even if these are opposed to or critical of prevailing state policies or public officials;

Remove articles in the draft press law and repeal other Jordanian laws which apply to the press and which prescribe ill-defined or other prohibitions on the content of journalists' writing and their ability to practice their profession freely;

Abolish or remove any statute which legalizes censorship, such as the content bans outlined in Article 36, or allows the pre-screening or banning of foreign newspapers and other publications in Jordan (Articles 30, 34, and 36);

Abolish professional and other regulations which interfere with the right of journalists to practice their profession freely. These include provisions that grant authorities unlimited power to license publications (Article 16); set professional requirements for journalists (Articles 2 and 9); or which stipulate financial requirements for the practice of journalism (Article 12);

Remove provisions of the draft press law which allow for the suspension or banning of publications; Institute legal safeguards to end the detention, arrest, and criminal prosecution of journalists in Jordan in response to their publication of news and opinion.

We thank you for your attention to these important matters.

 

Sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper

Executive Director



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c/o The Honorable Sa'd Hayel Srour
Speaker
Chamber of Deputies
Amman, Jordan

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