In separate letters sent by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch to Jordanian Prime Minister Abd al-Salam, the two organizations strongly protested the sweeping ban that Jordanian authorities have imposed on all press coverage of the case of prominent political opposition figure and former member of parliament, Leith Shubeilat.
Shubeilat's trial in the state security court for inciting an illegal demonstration in Ma'an is scheduled to resume on April 13, 1998. The letters say that the press ban violates internationally recognized standards for freedom of expression and constitutes outright censorship of the press.
"Banning coverage of such a high-profile case, and prohibiting journalists from reporting news from the courtroom, send an ominous message," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch. "It can only be viewed as blatant state interference with the fundamental right of a free press to report the news, and the right of the public to obtain the news. The fact that this ban comes in the context of a continuing clamp down on the press in Jordan makes it only more worrying."
CPJ chairman Gene Roberts said: "The media blackout follows a disturbing pattern of government efforts to silence the press in Jordan. We urge the Jordanian government to end censorship and the criminal prosecution of journalists, which violate international press freedom standards."
CPJ and Human Rights Watch have previously communicated to Jordanian authorities their concern about unwarranted restrictions on freedom of expression, including those codified in the 1993 press and publications law as well as the 1997 press law amendments, which the High Court of Justice ruled unconstitutional in January 1998. Human Rights Watch has called for repeal of Article 195 of the penal code, which criminalizes expression deemed insulting to His Majesty King Hussein, and CPJ has urged a cessation of the prosecution of journalists under this statute. These issues have been raised by CPJ most recently in Attacks on the Press in 1997, the organization's annual survey on press freedom conditions worldwide that was published in March 1998, and in two Human Rights Watch reports published in June 1997 ( "A Death Knell for Free Expression? The New Amendments to the Press and Publications Law") and October 1997 ( "Clamping Down on Critics: Human Rights Violations in Advance of the Parliamentary Elections").
In its letter, Human Rights Watch also criticizes the categorical ban on all public demonstrations that went into effect in Jordan on February 10, at a time when many Jordanians were deeply concerned about the prospect of a U.S.-led military strike on Iraq. It says that a ban on peaceful demonstrations cannot be justified if its intent is to silence opposition voices and suppress freedom of expression. It also expresses deep concern 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 subjected to criminal prosecution for expressing opinions privately or publicly that are critical of the state's domestic or foreign policies," said Hanny Megally. "And no one should be put on trial for urging others to protest government policies through peaceful means."