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The noose tightens on freedom of speech in Jordan

August 28, 2015 at 1:41 pm

When Jordan broadened its anti-terror law last year, critics warned that it could be used to silence opposition. The law expanded the definition of “terrorism” to include any act meant to create sedition, harm property, injure international relations, or to use the internet or media outlets to promote terrorist thinking. The amendment also increased the penalties, which now range from 10 years in prison to the death penalty. The Jordanian government said that these amendments were necessary to protect the country given the increased threat from Daesh in neighbouring Syria. Opponents warned at the time that it could lead to a far wider crackdown on opposition groups and restrictions on media freedom.

These warnings appear to have been borne out. Several gag orders have been circulated to different news outlets this year. The media has been formally banned from printing photographs or news issued by Daesh about the Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasabeh. Critical statements about Jordan’s military, which is part of the US-led coalition bombing Daesh, are also prohibited.

According to Human Rights Watch, numerous journalists have been arrested. Jamal Ayoub, a freelance columnist, has been in jail since 22 April for writing an article critical of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen. The charge against him is “disturbing relations with a  foreign state” under the terrorism law. On 8 July, 2015, the authorities detained Ghazi Al-Marayat, a journalist with government-controlled newspaper Al-Rai. It was alleged that he had violated a media gag order by publishing details about a foiled terrorism plot. The newspaper said it had not received written notice of the gag order before publication. He was held for four days without charge before being released on bail, and could still face criminal charges.

The vague language in the anti-terrorism law gives the authorities the scope to detain journalists and others because of statements they have made or work they have published. On 18 August, a prosecutor summoned Atef Al-Jowlani, the editor of the daily newspaper Al-Sabeel, because of an opinion article he wrote in June criticising the Jordanian authorities for rejecting a gas cylinder shipment from India. He was released on bail but criminal charges have been brought against him.

And journalists are not the only ones facing official repression; numerous citizens have also been arrested because of comments on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Eyad Qunaibi, a university professor, has been detained since June because of Facebook comments he wrote criticising what he thought were un-Islamic trends in Jordanian society.

The range of charges brought against journalists and other citizens are broad-ranging – the vague wording of the anti-terror law allows this. Jordan, surrounded by conflict in neighbouring countries and home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, certainly faces problems. But rights campaigners question whether a drastic reduction in freedoms is the answer.

“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,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan should stop prosecuting journalists and revise its terrorism law to remove vague language used to limit peaceful speech.”

Of course, Jordan was hardly a beacon of free speech before the terrorism law was expanded. Different laws already criminalised speech deemed critical of the King, government officials and institutions, as well as Islam. Free speech guarantees were strengthened in 2011, but the penal code was not amended to bring it into compliance with these guarantees. The terrorism law was introduced in 2006 after bombings in Amman left 60 people dead, so it has already been operational (albeit with a more limited scope) for nearly a decade. But despite this context of already poor provisions for freedom of speech, analysts are concerned about developments in the last few years. In addition to the expanded definition of terrorism that has been used to prosecute journalists, an amendment to the press law in 2012 allowed for the censorship of websites. This year, Jordan has been ranked 143rd out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

Jordan is a Western ally, seen as a stable country that has kept Islamic extremism at bay. Yet there is a clear irony here. Last January after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania marched alongside other world leaders in Paris to support freedom of expression. The Jordanian activist Bassem Al-Rawabdeh went on Facebook to criticise the royal couple’s participation – and was promptly arrested under the anti-terror law. He was sentenced to five months in jail for insulting the monarch.

Some analysts have warned of unintended consequences of this clampdown on freedom of expression, suggesting that it could actually end up stirring dissent. Whether that happens remains to be seen. As things stand, anyone who publically expresses an opinion in Jordan does so at risk to their freedom.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.