Since Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, there has been growing tension between the Jordanian government and the independent press, particularly the kingdom's small-circulation weekly newspapers. Journalists and editors have been arrested, detained and prosecuted for violations of both the penal code and provisions of the press and publications law of 1993.(1) By the count of one Jordanian weekly newspaper, since the law went into effect sixty-two cases have been brought against journalists and editors, the overwhelming majority of them with weekly newspapers.(2) The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented the cases of five editors and publishers, and six journalists, who were arrested and detained between July 1996 and October 1996. One case involved Hilmi Asmar, editor-in-chief of the weekly al-Sabeel, who was arrested in September 1996 "because of an article in which he described the alleged torture of an Islamic activist by Jordanian security officials."(3) In advance of King Hussein's visit to Washington in April 1997, CPJ charged that press freedom in Jordan had deteriorated further in 1997, citing additional cases of the prosecution and conviction of journalists earlier in the year, and called on the king to ·cease immediately the arrest and criminal prosecution of journalists for the practice of their profession."(4)
Faced with public opposition to normalization of relations with Israel, frustration about the implementation of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and popular discontent with the state of the economy and high rates of unemployment and underemployment, Jordanian authorities have clearly signaled a growing discomfort with the exercise of freedom of expression by both individual critics and the press. In December 1995, Leith Shubeilat, a prominent independent Islamist, elected president of the Jordan Engineers Association and former member of parliament, was arrested. He was denied bail, and charged and tried in the state security court for "lèse majesté" (offending the dignity of the king), a criminal offense under article 195 of the penal code. The evidence presented against Shubeilat - a vocal critic of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel, and the government's economic policies - included copies and recordings of controversial speeches that he had made in various cities in 1995, as well as a copy of a speech written in 1994 but never delivered.(5) In March 1996, the security court convicted Shubeilat and sentenced him to a three-year prison term; after being held behind bars for almost one year, he was released by order of the king on November 9, 1996.
In August 1996, violent anti-government protests erupted in Karak in southern Jordan in reaction to a doubling of the price of bread; the unrest spread to other nearby towns and also reached Amman, the capital. Four journalists, a publisher and an editor were hauled into court for their coverage of the events, which authorities charged had incited sedition.(6) In the aftermath of the unrest, King Hussein indicated that new restrictions on the media might be forthcoming. "The media disarray, which is eating at the foundations of the national edifice and the accomplishments of the homeland, needs to be reformed so that all sides may rise to the appropriate level and so that the rock-bottom degeneration reached by some in the name of freedom of expression may be checked," he said.(7) Just before the new amendments to the press and publications law were made public, the king again criticized the press: "The press is not reflecting the correct image about the country which we know," he said in a speech to senior military officers in May 1997. "This distortion should stop."(8)
(1)The press law was approved by parliament in March 1993, ratified by King Hussein in April 1993, and went into effect in May 1993 as the Press and Publication Law No. 10 of 1993.
(2)Raed al Abed, "Journalists United in Their Rejection of New Press Law," The Star, May 22, 1997, as distributed by WorldSource Online, Inc. According to The Star, only four of the sixty-cases involved daily newspapers.
(3) Committee to Project Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1996 (New York, Committee to Protect Journalists: 1997), p. 296.
(4) See Letter to King Hussein from the Committee to Protect Journalists, March 28, 1997.
(5) Human Rights Watch protested Shubeilat's arrest and prosecution, the conditions of his detention, and threats by security forces to pressure defense witnesses not to appear in court. Our February 9, 1996, letter to then-Prime Minister Abdel Karim al-Kabariti went unanswered.
(6) Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1996, p. 296. Both PEN American Center and the Committee to Protect Journalists sent letters of protest to the Jordanian government about these arrests.
(7) Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Radio (Amman), August 26, 1996, as reported by BBC Monitoring Summary of World Broadcasts, BBC Monitoring Service: Middle East, August 27, 1996.
(8) Dominic Evans, "Jordan Unveils Tough New Press Law," Reuter, May 18, 1997.