Freedom of the Press 2010

Freedom Of The Press - Jordan (2010)

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 20
Political Environment: 24
Economic Environment: 19
Total Score: 63

Following a wave of arrests of journalists in 2008, the level of press freedom in Jordan remained relatively unchanged in 2009, as those arrested met with mixed outcomes in court. Jordan’s constitution guarantees freedoms of expression and speech so long as their exercise does not “violate the law.” Press laws include vague clauses and other restrictions that curb media freedom and allow journalists to be tried under Jordan’s penal code, rather than its civil code. All publications must obtain licenses from the state. The 2007 Press and Publications Law allows the courts to block publication of any printed material and withdraw licenses, but limits the government’s ability to shut down printing presses. The law also prohibits detention for opinions expressed through “speech, writing, or through any other means,” yet in 2008, Fayez al-Ajrashi, an editor who published criticism of Amman’s mayor, spent 15 days in detention while authorities investigated allegations that he had “agitated sectarian tensions and created strife among people.” He continued to await trial throughout 2009. The Press and Publications Law provides for fines of up to 28,000 dinars (US$39,500) for speech that offends religion, the prophets, or the government.
The Press Association Law requires Jordanian journalists to belong to Jordan’s press association, but the group does not accept internet-based journalists, leaving them in a state of legal limbo. In 2007, Jordan became the only country in the region to pass an access to information law, though press freedom groups criticized the legislation for including vague national security exemptions and an oversight mechanism that lacked independence. Under the law, any person has the right to acquire information and can complain to the Information Council if a request is denied. There were no registered complaints in 2009.
The 2003 Audio Visual Law officially ended the government monopoly on broadcasting and resulted in the licensing of dozens of privately owned radio stations. However, the law sets fees that are 50 percent higher for stations airing news and political programming, and allows the government to reject licenses without providing a reason. The Audiovisual Commission (AVC), created by the law to license and regulate private radio and television outlets, granted a license to Jordan’s first privately owned television station, ATV, but then abruptly halted its planned launch in August 2007. As of the end of 2009, ATV had yet to begin broadcasting. During the year, the government rejected 13 applications for radio stations, including a station produced by women, called Zahrat al-Ghor, in the Jordan Valley. The women now produce programming aired on an Amman-based radio station called Radio Al-Balad. A Palestinian station in the West Bank city of Jericho downloads the women’s program from Radio Al Balad’s website and rebroadcasts it on a frequency available to the Jordanian side of the valley, circumventing the lack of a government license. Journalists complain that loopholes in the Audio Visual Law favor certain media. For instance, FAN radio is owned by Jordan’s armed forces and thus has access to army communications towers around the country, while AMEN FM, a police-owned station, refuses to share traffic reports from police helicopters with other stations. Both stations benefit from taxpayer subsidies, further skewing the playing field against private outlets.
In December, the cabinet approved a code of conduct to outline the government’s relationship with the media. According to the government, the code provides for “a free, independent media without government interference and influence,” and would end state influence of media through advertising purchases, media subscriptions, gifts to journalists, and hiring of journalists employed by private outlets. The effects of the code remain to be seen. While many observers described it as a positive step, it could harm small news publications that rely on government subscriptions.
Editorial restrictions, whether official or unofficial, continue to prevent journalists from freely reporting or expressing viewpoints. In practice, the government tolerates a certain measure of criticism of officials and policies, and allows some room for Islamist movements to express their ideas. The line identifying what is permissible is unclear, however, leading nearly all journalists to self-censor as a precaution. Intelligence agencies watch journalists closely, and the government gave free rein to intelligence officials, police, and prosecutors to clamp down on undesirable speech in 2009. There were also claims that the government used informants in newsrooms and recruited workers at printing presses to act as de facto censors. According to Jordan’s Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), the government “used detention and prosecution or the threat of prosecution to intimidate journalists.” In one case, Khalid Mahadin, a well-known columnist, was acquitted in April of defamation charges related to a piece in which he criticized the parliament and called on King Abdullah II to dissolve it. He was tried under Jordan’s criminal code instead of media laws because his article was posted online rather than in print. In June, the poet Islam Samhan was sentenced to one year in prison and fined US$14,000 for “slandering Islam” through the use of Koranic verses in his poetry.
Security forces continued to monitor and harass journalists, though in an unusual move that boded well for the media, the Public Security Department apologized after Yasser Abu Hilala, the bureau chief for Qatar-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera, was severely beaten by riot police in January while covering protests against Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. King Abdullah telephoned Abu Hilala to “reiterate his objection to any assault against journalists,” according to local news reports.
The government owns substantial shares in Jordan’s two leading daily newspapers. Though independent print media—including many daily newspapers—do exist in Jordan, they are required to obtain licenses. According to the U.S. State Department, the Jordanian government influences the appointment of editors in chief at some major publications through positions on their boards or through undisclosed contacts. Few restrictions are placed on satellite broadcasts, and satellite dishes continue to be a popular way of receiving international media, especially from neighboring Israel and Syria. In June, Jordanian authorities closed the local offices of two Iranian satellite channels, the Arabic-language Al-Alam and the English-language Press TV, ostensibly because they lacked proper accreditation and licenses to operate legally. At the time they were shut down, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement calling on authorities to allow media to work freely even if their funding comes from a foreign source. According to RSF, Al-Alam submitted several requests to renew its accreditation without receiving a response. Press TV said its accreditation had been renewed automatically every year until 2009.
The government actively promotes access to the internet and claims to place no restrictions on its use. The internet was accessed by 28 percent of Jordanians in 2009, and the range of news and debate on many online fora remains lively. In 2008, the Ministry of the Interior issued new instructions requiring owners of internet cafes to install cameras and record users’ personal data, such as their names, telephone numbers, and time of use. Also that year, the municipality of Amman blocked access at its offices to 600 websites, among them all Jordanian news sites. The municipality said the move was designed to prevent employees from misusing their time, but news website owners argued that they were targeted for their publication of critical stories concerning the municipality.