In a letter to the speaker of Jordan's Chamber of Deputies, Human Rights Watch criticizes the draft press and publications law that the government presented to parliament last week.

The law imposes sweeping restrictions on the content of anything printed in Jordan, and gives vast powers to the information ministry to suspend newspapers, censor and ban books, and prohibit the entry of foreign publications.

"The state is attempting to limit access to information, and control the content of what is written and read in Jordan," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The proposed law is a direct threat to freedom of expression, and imposes a daunting regime of censorship on journalists, scholars, researchers, writers, editors and publishers."

Unless it is rejected or amended by parliament, the law will prohibit the publication of information in books, newspapers and other periodicals on a wide range of vaguely worded topics. Off-limit subjects include military and security forces, and criticism of the King, the royal family, and leaders of Arab, Islamic and friendly states. The law also forbids the publication of information that would lead to strikes, sit-ins or public gatherings; threaten the national currency; corrupt morals; promote perversion; and contradict the principles of "national responsibility" and "the values of the Arab Islamic Nation." Violators face fines of $21,000 to $35,000 for each offense.

The provisions of the draft law apply to publishers of books, newspapers, specialized journals and other periodicals, as well as to research institutes, polling centers, and translation houses.

"The draft law wrongly places the burden on writers, editors and publishers to guess what is meant by ambiguous terms," Megally said. "The inevitable danger is that there will be an increase in self-censorship, and the unfortunate result will be a sharp decrease in the diversity of news and other information that reaches the public."

In its letter, Human Rights Watch calls on parliamentary deputies to cancel or revise provisions of the draft law that constitute unreasonable interference with the internationally protected right to freedom of expression, including press freedom and academic freedom. It specifically urged the deputies to strike the content bans in Article 5, Article 42 and Article 44 of the draft law.