In a letter to the speaker of Jordan's upper house of parliament made public today, Human Rights Watch calls the press and publications law passed by the Chamber of Deputies on August 9 a direct threat to freedom of expression.
Human Rights Watch also criticizes the law's requirement that research institutes and public opinion polling centers must obtain government approval before accepting local or foreign funds for projects. This sets an alarming precedent because it allows the state to interfere in civil society and block independent research that is not to its liking.
"This law is an anachronism," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "News and other information from around the world is freely available on the Internet, but the government is attempting to censor what local newspapers can publish, and control what books and foreign newspapers Jordanians can read."
Human Rights Watch adds that the law will have an enduring impact on Jordanian society because of its highly restrictive approach concerning what can be legally printed and distributed in the Kingdom. "Unless the Senate takes action to reject or substantially revise the problematic provisions, this law will increase self-censorship, limit the public's access to a diversity of news, information and ideas, and drastically affect the content of what is written, published and read in Jordan," Megally said.
The full text of the letter to His Excellency Zeid Rifai is attached.
For information, contact
In New York:
Hanny Megally 212-216-1230
Virginia N. Sherry 212-216-1231
Jean-Paul Marthoz 322-732-2009
13 August 1998
The Honorable Zeid Rifai
Upper House of Parliament
Since last year, Human Rights Watch has closely monitored the government's efforts to impose substantial restrictions on newspapers, books, and other written materials that are published or distributed in Jordan. Following the enactment of temporary amendments to the press and publications law in May 1997, we cautioned that Jordan, as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has a duty to both publishers and readers to guarantee the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds that is required by Article 19 of the Covenant. We are deeply disappointed with the amended press and publications law that was approved by the Chamber of Deputies on August 9. It contains numerous provisions that contravene Jordan's obligations under international law, and imposes a daunting regime of censorship on journalists, writers, editors, scholars, researchers, and publishers. If the law is enacted without substantial revisions, we fear that it will pose a direct threat to freedom of expression in Jordan, and place press freedom and academic freedom at particular risk.
We are writing to you today because the Senate now has the opportunity to examine carefully the various articles of the law that have generated sustained criticism by Jordanians as well as international human rights and press freedom organizations. We respectfully call to the attention of Your Excellency and other members of the Senate the following provisions of the law that compromise freedom of expression in Jordan and should be rejected:
The law prohibits categorically the publication of any type of information on a staggering range of vaguely worded topics. Article 5 bans the publication of anything that "contradicts" the principles of freedom and national responsibility, human rights, and the values of the Arab Islamic Nation. Article 37 contains a list of additional prohibited topics, including anything that concerns the armed forces or the security apparatus; "disparages" the King or the Royal Family; "harms national unity"; "instigates" strikes, sit-ins, or public gatherings; "shakes confidence" in the national currency; or involves "degradation," "libel," or "slander" of the heads of Arab, Islamic or friendly states. Violators of the content bans outlined in Article 37 will be subjected to financial penalties ranging from 5,000 Jordanian dinars ($7,037) to 10,000 dinars ($14,075), with the fines doubled for repeat offenses (Article 47).
The law's sweeping content bans, coupled with the substantial fines, appear designed to impose a regime of self-censorship on the press and other publications, and to prevent journalists and authors from writing about a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues. The broadly formulated language of the prohibited topics invites arbitrary interpretation by authorities. It wrongly places the burden on writers, editors and publishers to guess what is meant by these ambiguous terms or face punitive fines and other sanctions.
Article 19(3) of the ICCPR allows restriction of expression only in limited circumstances, namely in the interest of "respect of the rights or reputations of others" or "the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals." Such restrictions must be "provided by law" and be "necessary." These exceptions are narrowly framed, and the burden of demonstrating their validity rests with the state. The internationally recognized norms of free expression require that the state justify any content ban by showing that restrictions are necessary to achieve a specific and legitimate purpose within one of the enumerated exceptions.
Imposition of News Blackouts
Article 39 of the law gives extremely broad discretion to judicial authorities to ban reporting about trials and criminal investigations if, in their judgment, such reporting would "influence" the proceedings. This provision is not in conformity with international standards, which provide for a more specific and narrow test in order to impose such censorship. Article 14(1) of the ICCPR permits exclusion of the public and 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."
Pre-Publication Censorship and the Banning of Books
The law also prohibits the printing or circulation of books in Jordan without government approval. Article 35 requires that two copies of any manuscript be provided to the press and publications department of the Ministry of Information prior to printing. It permits the director of the department to ban the publication of any manuscript that contains material in violation of the law. There is a similar provision for imported publications. Article 31 stipulates that foreign publications must also be vetted by the press and publications department prior to distribution or sale in Jordan, and empowers the director to ban any publication that contains material in violation of the law. These articles open the door for the state to ban books that include material on the prohibited topics listed in Article 5 and Article 37.
Under Article 48 of the law, possession or distribution of an unauthorized foreign publication -- such as the banned issue of a newspaper published abroad -- carries a maximum fine of 1,000 Jordanian dinars ($1,407).
Closure of newspapers and other publications
The law permits courts to suspend the publication of any newspaper or periodical while a case against it is in progress (Article 50). Such action can be taken for reasons of public interest or national security, with the length of a closure solely at the discretion of the courts. Given the numerous vaguely worded provisions of the law that can be used to bring cases against newspapers for possible violations, we fear that Article 50 may be used to harass independent publishers and force their publications off the newsstands for indeterminate periods of time.
Restrictions on activities of independent nongovernmental institutes
Article 41 prohibits research institutes and public opinion polling centers from receiving financial assistance from Jordanian or foreign donors for study or research without prior approval of the Minister of Information. This provision sets an alarming precedent by granting the executive branch the power to intervene directly in the planned activities of these important institutions of civil society, and to block virtually any initiative that is not to the state's liking.
While any government has the responsibility to ensure that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) conduct their affairs in a transparent and accountable manner, the means and methods of exercising this delicate responsibility should ensure full respect for human rights principles. Article 41 constitutes excessive government interference in the internal affairs of NGOs by shifting control over two key aspects of their operations -- programs and funding -- to the state.
The press and publications law is a critically important piece of legislation that will have an enduring impact on Jordanian society because it sets the parameters of what can be legally printed and distributed in the Kingdom. The provisions of the law apply to written materials produced in Jordan or abroad, including books, daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and other periodicals, and reports and studies of academics and researchers.
In our view, the sweeping restrictions and harsh penalties in the current law, as amended by the Chamber of Deputies, will increase self-censorship, limit the public's access to a diversity of news, information and ideas, and drastically affect the content of what is written, published, and read in the Kingdom. We are particularly concerned that the law will substantially diminish academic freedom and freedom of the press, and interfere with the independent work of nongovernmental research and public policy institutes. Human Rights Watch therefore respectfully appeals to Your Excellency and the other members of the Senate to review comprehensively each provision of the press and publications law, and cancel or revise substantially the articles noted above that constitute unreasonable or unnecessary interference with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in Jordan.
Thank you in advance for Your Excellency's attention to this most important matter.