Human Rights Watch is writing to protest the sweeping ban that Jordanian authorities have imposed on press coverage of the case of Leith Shubeilat, the prominent political opposition figure and former member of parliament whose trial in the state security court is scheduled to resume on April 13, 1998.
Mr. Shubeilat, whose trial began last month, has been charged with inciting an illegal demonstration. He was arrested on the night of February 19-20 as he was returning to Amman after speaking that evening at a mosque in Ma'an, in southern Jordan. According to the prosecutor's charge sheet, Mr. Shubeilat was highly critical of the government and urged the audience in Ma'an to demonstrate publicly to express support for Iraq. Pro-Iraq demonstrations erupted in Ma'an after Friday noon prayers on February 20. Demonstrators clashed with security forces, who intervened to enforce the ban on demonstrations. One resident of Ma'an was shot and killed in disputed circumstances, which prompted additional unrest and clashes between residents and riot police. Army units were dispatched to restore order and conduct house-to-house searches for weapons. The city was placed under curfew for six days, and scores of people were reportedly arrested. Your Excellency charged on February 22 that Mr. Shubeilat was responsible for the disturbances, and accused him of "instigating people to protest against the government which [Shubeilat] described as Zionist and hostile to Iraq."
Human Rights Watch takes the position that the right of peaceful assembly includes the right of citizens to express freely through peaceful means their views about issues of national and international concern. The imposition of a categorical and open-ended ban on all forms of peaceful public assembly violates this right. The burden is on the state to justify the necessity of restrictions on freedom of assembly for reasons such as national security, public safety, or public order. A ban on peaceful demonstrations cannot be justified if its intent is to silence opposition voices and suppress freedom of expression. We are deeply concerned that Leith Shubeilat is being prosecuted in the state security court because he exercised his right to freedom of expression, and urged others to express their views in a public manner. No one should be criminally prosecuted for expressing opinions privately or publicly that are critical of the state's domestic or foreign policies. Similarly, no one should be tried for urging others to protest government policies through peaceful means.
Human Rights Watch also finds that the subsequent ban on all press coverage of the Shubeilat case, including but not limited to the proceedings of his public trial in the state security court, violates internationally recognized standards for freedom of expression and unnecessarily restricts the press from reporting news, views and other information to the public. According to Jordanian journalists, the first announcement of the ban came in a letter dated and delivered on March 19 from Bilal al-Tal, director of the press and publications department of the ministry of information. Mr. al-Tal requested that newspapers refrain from publishing any information about the Shubeilat case. He referred to a letter from the state security court prosecutor, Mamoun Khaswaneh, also dated March 19 and included as an attachment, which requested that newspapers withhold from publication "any news or commentary" about the case. The prosecutor cited Article 42 of the 1993 press and publications law as the legal basis for his directive. Article 42 states: "The publication of the proceedings of any case pending before the Courts prior to the pronouncement of a final ruling shall be prohibited, unless the Court sanctions publication." Journalists were troubled because the broad language of the prosecutor's ban exceeded the provisions of Article 42. They stressed that while the law prohibits publication of the actual proceedings in the trial, it does not specifically ban news and analysis about a trial that is in progress, nor does it prohibit other reporting about a defendant and his or her case.
Following the receipt of the letters on March 19, Jordanian newspapers published stories about the ban, and opinion pieces about its legality, including a critical statement issued by Hussein Mjalli, the head of the Jordanian Bar Association and one of Mr. Shubeilat's lawyers. Mr. Mjalli argued that the prosecutor's directive had "no legal grounds, should not be considered, and its contents should be disregarded." He added: "The decision to ban printing news pertaining to the defendant is considered an infringement on public freedoms guaranteed by the constitution and it strengthens the government's hand in suppressing freedom of the press."
According to journalists, authorities were "furious" about this coverage, and additional written warnings were issued. On March 26, Mr. al-Tal sent a second letter to the newspapers, which was accompanied by another letter from the state security court prosecutor, also dated March 26. Mr. al-Tal reiterated that "no press reports or commentaries" about the Shubeilat case could be published. The accompanying letter from the prosecutor stated that the stories that had appeared concerning aspects of the Shubeilat case since March 19 were "illegal," and warned that violators would be subject to criminal prosecution. The state security prosecutor's letter, which was addressed to Mr. al-Tal, asked the press and publications department take legal action against any violator.
On March 30, the day before Leith Shubeilat's trial began in the state security court, newspapers received a third letter from Mr. al-Tal. He attached a letter from the military judge who heads the security court, Yousef al-Fa'oury. The judge's letter to Mr. al-Tal stated that the court "has decided in its consideration of Case No. 145/98 against the suspect Leith Shubeilat to ban publication of any details concerning the court proceedings, or commentary on [the proceedings], under the legal responsibility spelled out in the laws in effect. Please take action and request newspapers to implement this decision and abide by Article 42 of the press and publications law."
Jordanian journalists emphasized to Human Rights Watch that the ban on coverage represented another serious setback for press freedom. They said that the ban was first communicated to newspapers well in advance of the beginning of the trial, indicating to them that the intent of the authorities was to silence the press and enforce a complete media blackout on any coverage of Mr. Shubeilat -- including news, background information, analysis, and opinions. Journalists also acknowledged the intimidating effect of the threat of prosecution. "This is a clear violation of the ethics of journalism and not just the law," an editor at a weekly newspaper said, adding that the ban was indicative of a "martial law mentality" that restricts freedom of expression in Jordan. "Our duty is to report, but this puts us in chains. I could be charged and brought before the court for writing anything about Shubeilat. The military prosecutor should not be giving me orders about what to publish. I am a civilian and a journalist.," he told Human Rights Watch. The editor at a daily newspaper agreed: "This [ban] is against the law and democracy. We are threatened with being taken to court and maybe to prison."
The blanket ban on press coverage of the Shubeilat case is a violation of Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Jordan has ratified. Article 14(1) of the ICCPR permits exclusion of the public and the press "from all or part of a trial for reasons of morals, public order (ordre public) or national security in a democratic society, or when the interest of the private lives of the Parties so requires, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice." To our knowledge, authorities have provided no justification of why the Shubeilat court proceedings meet this test and why journalists should be prohibited from reporting about the trial. In the absence of such justification, the ban contravenes Jordan's international obligations in relation to freedom of expression and should be revoked. We are further concerned that the ministry of information and the state security court prosecutor overstepped the provisions of Article 42 of the press and publications law by barring newspapers from publishing commentary or other information about Mr. Shubeilat's case. Their written directives constitute outright censorship of the press, in violation of Article 19 of the ICCPR which guarantees the right to freedom of expression.
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the continuing pattern of restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression in Jordan, and we urge the government to reverse this worrying trend. Thank you for your attention to these important matters, and I look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.
Middle East and North Africa Division Human Rights Watch
His Excellency Abdullah Ensour, Deputy Prime Minister for Services Affairs and Minister of State for Information Affairs His Excellency Dr. Marwan Muasher, Ambassdor, Embassy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Washington, D.C.