Journalists say an ‘Arab Autumn’ has resulted in increasing government control over the media.
Amman, Jordan – Last January, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania marched alongside world leaders in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attacks to stand for freedom of expression.
But at home, when Jordanian activist Bassem al-Rawabdeh criticised the royal couple’s participation in the march on his Facebook page, he was arrested under the country’s “anti-terror” law.
“The march… is a clear war against Islam,” he wrote on Facebook. “The regime criticised the terrorism in Paris… while exercising oppression against those who went out to march for our dear prophet [in Jordan].”
Rawabdeh was sentenced to five months in jail for insulting the monarch. Other journalists and activists are also being prosecuted under the country’s “anti-terror” law, and so far, at least a dozen are on trial at the State Security Court.
“Jordan’s concerns over its security situation shouldn’t translate into branding journalists and writers as security threats merely for doing their jobs or expressing themselves peacefully,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, last month.
“Jordan should stop prosecuting journalists and revise its terrorism law to remove vague language used to limit peaceful speech.”
The Jordanian kingdom has a reputation abroad of being a modern and stable state that resists Muslim extremism and has avoided the chaos afflicting other countries in the region.
A member of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, Jordan is also an important US ally in the “War on Terror” – a message reinforced by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who recently visited US troops posted in Jordan.
The “anti-terror” law that the Jordanian government has been using to prosecute journalists came into being in 2006, a year after bombings in Amman, the capital, left 60 people dead. The law was subsequently amended last year, broadening the definition of “terrorism”.
One of the law’s provisions prohibits “engaging in acts that expose the kingdom to risk of hostile acts, disturb its relations with a foreign state, or expose Jordanians to acts of retaliation against them or their money”. The charge carries a prison sentence of three to 20 years.
According to Human Rights Watch, the broad interpretation of what the group calls a “vaguely worded” law has been used to crack down on journalists and activists.
Although watchdog groups say Jordan has a long history of oppressing freedom of speech, observers say the developments over the last three years have been worrisome.
An amendment to Jordan’s press law in 2012 allowed for the censorship of news websites. More recently, journalists who have reported on topics such as the Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border or questioned the country’s foreign affairs strategies have been targeted.
“This approach of telling people they have to choose between ‘stability versus freedoms’ is very short-sighted and actually harmful in the long run,” Omar Atout, an Amman-based lawyer and human rights activist, told Al Jazeera. “Because how can you have real stability and security without a system of checks and balances, and solid democratic institutions, including a free press?”
Journalists and citizens who have expressed their political views on social media – by, for example, criticising the Saudi-led war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen – have also been prosecuted under the “anti-terror” law.
“We cannot deny that the threat of terrorism is real and that the state is working on different levels to fight it, but this has also, unfortunately, been used as an excuse to stifle political speech and any form of dissent,” Atout said.
In one recent case, Ghazi al-Marayat – a journalist with the pro-government al-Rai newspaper, who allegedly violated a media gag order by publishing details about an alleged foiled “terrorism” plot – was arrested on July 8 and held for four days. Although he was eventually released on bail, he could still face criminal charges.
Other cases include that of a freelance columnist, Jamal Ayoub, who has been detained since April 22 for criticising the Saudi-led coalition bombing of Yemen.
Journalist Seif al-Obeidat and the publisher of the website Saraya News, Hashem al-Khalidi, were both detained in February. They are now out on bail, awaiting trial in military court for posting information on the January negotiations between Jordan and ISIL on the release of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was eventually killed by the armed group.
Khalid al-Kalaldeh, Jordan’s minister of political development, oversees programmes for reintegrating Jordanians who have attempted to join – or who successfully joined – armed groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. He believes that individuals facing Jordan’s trial process have nothing to fear if they are innocent.
“We are a country of law, and the court can conclude that they do not form a danger,” he told Al Jazeera. “Before [this year’s] Eid al-Fitr, three people who were facing terrorism charges were found innocent and were released. I didn’t see any media outlets cover that. They only focus on those who are sentenced.”
According to Kalaldeh, journalists are prosecuted under the “terrorism” law instead of the press code because “they talk about terrorism cases”.
“How long must we keep avoiding the fact that all these terrorist organisations have been organising themselves through the use of social media?” he asked.
But independent journalists see the crackdown as an attempt to discourage criticism of the government and encourage self-censorship.
hurts the image of Jordan, but in reality they simply want to control the media.”]
Musab al-Shawabkeh, an investigative reporter with the news website, Amman Net, has denounced corruption at the Zaatari refugee camp and said he has recently had uneasy run-ins with the government.
Shawabkeh said that in 2011, amid the Arab Spring uprisings, Jordan pre-emptively allowed more press freedoms to avoid chaos in the country. But after the civil war in Syria began, he said, public opinion demanded more stability, and a crackdown on the press began.
“Whenever journalism thrives in Jordan, the authorities panic, and they spread fear,” he said.
Shawabkeh’s publication brought forth a claim that Jordan’s interior minister withheld information regarding instances in which Jordan forcefully returned Syrian refugees to Syria.
Earlier last month, a letter written by the head of Jordan’s Syrian Refugees Affairs Directorate recommended that Shawabkeh and three of his colleagues be taken to court for publishing investigative stories that might have damaged Jordan’s reputation abroad.
“There has been a succession of comical situations and unfair trials,” Shawabkeh said. “Their argument is that [critical reporting] hurts the image of Jordan, but in reality, they simply want to control the media.”
Mohammed Shamma, a Jordanian journalist who has reported extensively on human rights issues in the country, believes that reporters are in a precarious situation with few means to fight back.
“The message is clear: You better all be careful,” he said. “But if we don’t allow the media to work freely, we will face the same problems as the other countries.”
Reporting for this article was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is supporting the next generation of global correspondents. Tala Elissa contributed reporting.