Situation ‘grimmer than ever’ for Jordan press freedom

Journalists say an ‘Arab Autumn’ has resulted in increasing government control over the media.

Jordan''s King Abdullah (2nd R), his wife Queen Rania (3nd R), and Crown Prince Hussein in Amman
In 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings began, Jordan's King Abdullah II called for 'sky-high' freedoms [Reuters]

Amman, Jordan – More than a month has passed since columnist Jamal Ayub, a Jordanian citizen, was arrested for publishing an online article for Al-Balad News criticising the Arab-led military coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Ayub is still awaiting a trial date at Jordan’s state security court. After two weeks of interrogation in detention, military Judge Ali Mubaideen charged Ayub with “jeopardising the country’s relations with a neighbouring state” under Jordan’s new anti-terrorism law. Ayub’s case is far from unique: He is the third journalist to be tried under the new law since the beginning of the year.

Critics and analysts say his case is part of a wider crackdown on press freedom that followed the Arab Spring – a crackdown that has intensified following Jordan’s role in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq. “Now we live in the Arab Autumn. The situation is grimmer than ever for press freedoms in Jordan,” Nidal Mansour, the head of the Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), told Al Jazeera.

CDFJ documents abuses against journalists in Jordan, and the Arab world more broadly. Its most recent report, “Press Freedom in Jordan: Dead End”, reflects the reality of declining press freedom in Jordan since the Arab Spring.

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Although the country is considered by regional standards to be “relatively free” and has no documented cases of journalists being murdered or kidnapped within its borders, journalists say press freedoms have suffered as security has become the nation’s priority. “There is no systematic torture against journalists in Jordan and we know that in comparison with the region, we assume a good position,” Mansour said. But on the other hand, Mansour added, Jordan is a “stable country and a comparison of the situation of press freedom with war-torn countries is not exactly fair”.

CDFJ’s report, which surveyed 505 Jordanian journalists, said most journalists stated that government interference in media affairs has risen. According to the report, journalists believed that the government and intelligence forces controlled media, whereas the audience’s influence on media was negligible.

This is the chilling effect of arrests, because journalists watch others tried and imprisoned. They feel afraid to write.

by Daoud Kuttab, veteran journalist

In 2011, when what became known as the Arab Spring uprisings began, Jordan’s King Abdullah II called for “sky-high” freedoms. Although the government initially loosened its grip on media, it later reversed its stance, failing to translate the king’s words into action.

The Jordanian government’s biggest assault on press freedom took place in 2013, when the government blocked 304 news media websites using a controversial publication law. In 2014, the CDFJ documented 153 violations of press freedoms in Jordan, compared to 112 violations in 2013. The most common infraction is barring journalists from reporting.  

Authorities bar journalists from reporting, the report stated, either by blocking their access to necessary data, or simply by issuing legislation banning journalists from writing about certain subjects. 

In December 2014, Jordan’s Public Security Directorate issued a decree banning journalists from publishing any news about it or its personnel without permission. A similar order by the armed forces issued in March 2014 banned news websites in particular, from publishing any news related to the Jordanian army.

The army, along with the royal family and religious affairs, are the three biggest taboos in Jordanian media. The CDFJ study found that 95 percent of the reporters said they practice self-censorship. “This is the chilling effect of arrests, because journalists watch others [who are] tried and imprisoned. They feel afraid to write,” said veteran journalist and columnist Daoud Kuttab.

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Jordanian officials say the arrests of journalists stem from their concern for the stability of the country. “Ideally, no journalist should be arrested,” Mohammad al-Momani, Jordan’s minister of media affairs, told Al Jazeera. “But if they deliberately report false information that destabilises national security, they will be sent to court, which will take necessary actions.”

Momani said the government is aware of the challenges blocking progress on press freedom – the biggest of which, he claimed, is the “level of professionalism of the local press”. To raise the level of professionalism, Momani said the Jordanian government is working with local and international NGOs and holding training workshops.

Meanwhile, journalists claim that the government is using arrests as a tool to pressure the media. Nidal Salameh, managing editor of Jerasa News, an online news publication, was arrested last August and held for three weeks for alleged connections with Hamas. But during his detention, Salameh said he was “only interrogated over his reporting on the Israeli attack on Gaza last year”.

“They interrogated me as if I were a criminal, when I was just doing my job,” he told Al Jazeera.

Mansour believes that these types of arrests, in which no court referrals are made, are “a form of pre-emptive punishment”, he told Al Jazeera.

Activists say violations of press freedom in Jordan go unpunished amid the absence of a system to protect journalists. Last year, Jordanian police assaulted five journalists as they were dispersing a crowd of protesters near the Israeli embassy.

Journalists filed a complaint, only to find themselves under investigation by a police committee. The investigation’s report cleared the officers, and accused journalists of practising their profession without a license as they are not members of the country’s Press Syndicate.

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Jordan’s Publication Law defines a journalist as a member of Jordan’s Press Syndicate. The syndicate has strict criteria for membership which excludes freelancers and journalists working for international news agencies.

CDFJ estimates that around 500 journalists in Jordan – almost one-third of those working in the kingdom – are not members of the syndicate, and thus are at risk of being arrested for “impersonating a journalist”.

Jordan concerned about growing support for ISIL

The ongoing unrest in the region, analysts say, has caused the international community to turn a blind eye to Jordan’s violations of press freedoms.

“Jordan can do whatever it can, and rights remain on the margins to maintain security,” Kuttab said.

Jordan is an ally of the United States, and is currently playing a major role in the war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Despite the crackdown on media outlets, Jordanian authorities have refrained from censoring content itself.

To date, more than 17 Jordanian online news websites have shared Ayub’s article. Given what he sees as the decline of press freedom in Jordan, Mansour does not foresee major changes happening in the near future: “We cannot really make a leap in this. We have to go step by step, and our next will be fighting against trying journalists in state security court.”

Source: Al Jazeera