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HRW Support for Proposed Amendment of Press Association Law

We write to express our support for the proposed amendment of the Jordan Press Association Law of 1998 abolishing the requirement of mandatory membership for journalists in the Jordanian Press Association (JPA).

November 9, 2005

His Excellency `Adnan Badran
Prime Minister and Minister of Defense
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Dear Prime Minister:

We write to express our support for the proposed amendment of the Jordan Press Association Law of 1998 abolishing the requirement of mandatory membership for journalists in the Jordanian Press Association (JPA). Human Rights Watch believes that a press association should base its valuable work on the voluntary, not mandatory, participation of journalists.

The current law, providing for mandatory membership in the press association, violates Jordan’s international human rights obligations and limits freedom of association and the right to choose work freely. Arguments in support of the law claiming that mandatory membership promotes high journalistic standards, fends off foreign influence, and protects press freedoms are not persuasive.

Freedom of Association

Article 16 of the current Press Association Law prohibits any news or media organization in the Kingdom from employing a journalist who is not registered with the Jordanian Press Association (JPA). The 1999 Press and Publications Law defines a journalist in article 2 as a member of the JPA, and in article 10 explicitly prevents any person from practicing journalism or calling themselves a journalist if not a JPA member.

Such mandatory membership violates Jordan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which as a state party Jordan has pledged to uphold. Section 1 of article 22 the ICCPR stipulates that “[E]veryone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” By requiring mandatory membership, Jordan violates the right to freely choose membership in a union or association.

Furthermore, JPA regulations restrict freedom of speech, and attach penalties to breach of such regulations. The association states that its mission is to safeguard the freedom necessary to practice journalism, but only within “the framework of its moral, national and patriotic responsibility” (Association Law, article 4). It draws up a journalistic code of ethics (article 19) and requires every journalist to swear an oath to king and country and to “respect the profession” (article 12). If a journalist breaches any of these vaguely worded or content-limiting restrictions (article 42), the disciplinary committee has the authority to ban a journalist from writing or expel him from the association entirely (article 46). Journalists have the right to appeal decisions to Jordan’s High Court of Justice (article 50), but the court has limited its reviews only to an examination of whether or not the JPA has followed correct procedures.

Criticism of the membership requirement has been mounting. At a media forum sponsored by the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Amman in 2000, over 130 international journalists and human rights activists called for lifting the mandatory membership requirement. In September 2005, the Jordanian Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), an independent organization, also supported lifting the requirement.

Many believe that the JPA serves to enforce the government’s views, or the views of the JPA’s leadership, on all journalists in Jordan, and to punish those who stray from those views. Journalists in at least partially government-owned media corporations, such as the daily newspapers al-Ra’i, al-Dustur, and the Petra News Agency, dominate the 650 members of the JPA, and they in turn elect the leadership of the association.

The association has indeed acted to silence those journalists whose speech, writing or conduct it has not approved. In September 2000, the association expelled CDFJ’s president, Nidal Mansour, while he was Secretary General of the JPA, for accepting foreign funding for CDFJ and not working full-time as a journalist. In October 1999, the association’s disciplinary committee decided to expel three journalists, Abdullah Hasanat, Sultan Hattab, and Jihad Mumani, for a visit to Israel that it considered an act of ‘normalization’ of relations with Israel. In 1998, the association rejected the application for membership of Shakir Jawhari, then editor-in-chief of al`Arab al-Yawm, without explanation, according to Mr. Jawhari. Although he won his appeal against the rejection in Jordan’s High Court of Justice in December 1999, the government-controlled Social Security Corporation in February 2000 purchased a majority share in the paper and forced him out.

Right to choose work freely

In Jordan, journalism remains a profession with high bars to entry by law. Media enterprises can only hire persons with certain academic degrees and after they have completed training on the job. The association decides what kind of training experience is acceptable, and sets a final exam that needs ministerial approval.

Regulating membership in professions with academic and training requirements may be necessary in certain, limited circumstances, such as for the practice of law and medicine, where training and study requirements are (i) absolute prerequisites to practice the profession, (ii) strictly and narrowly defined to relate to minimal standards for practice, and (iii) necessary to protect the rights of persons who rely on these professions for services that can affect important rights and health, respectively. Both law and medicine require a specific set of knowledge and in both, practitioners’ errors may be difficult to rectify. Journalists, on the other hand, do not face such conditions in practicing their profession. Indeed, in practicing journalism, they exercise their own basic right to freely express their opinions, guaranteed under article 19 of the ICCPR, which states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

We are aware that Jordan’s 1999 Press and Publications Law excludes columnists from the designation of journalists (Press and Publications Law, article 10) in recognition of the dilemma between the requirement of freedom to impart information or ideas and the government’s desire for the press to provide the highest level of information to the public. However, the fact remains that the criteria of academic and work training are not essential to the practice of journalism, have not been narrowly defined to relate to the practice of journalism, and are not connected to services that can seriously affect the rights, health or life of the population.

As more media content is being produced and consumed on the internet, the boundaries of journalism, and thus the viability of a body regulating entry into the profession, becomes less clear. JPA president Tariq al-Mumani told HRW that the Press and Publications Law currently does not regulate private internet journalism, but only internet sites belonging to Jordanian media corporations that also print newspapers. The high bars set by law to becoming a journalist coupled with the inability to work as a journalist outside of the JPA are an anachronism that limits the right to choose work freely.

Slipping Standards, Foreign Takeovers and Press Freedoms

Proponents of the current law have put forward three arguments in favor of keeping the mandatory membership requirement.

Fear of slipping standards

Chief among them is the view, often shared by government officials, that much reporting in the press is of a poor quality and occasionally damages the reputation of individuals, entities or countries. Mandatory membership, and the concomitant minimum standards of education and training, they argue, will ensure a high quality of journalists who will avoid writing libelous or slanderous news.

The JPA blames slipping standards on the work of unlicensed journalists. Around one hundred Jordanian journalists are believed to work without press association membership and thus illegally. According to the Jordan Times of September 20, “the government issued a memorandum [in August] to all public departments banning them from divulging information to or assisting non-JPA members. The move was called upon by the JPA for what its President Tariq Mumani said were part of efforts to regulate the profession and stop illegal journalists from violating the law and codes of ethics.”

However, it is not clear that mandatory association in a press association is the proper mechanism for ensuring that journalists do not harm reputations or otherwise libel or slander people. Jordan already has very broad laws in its penal code against slander, libel and “harming the reputation” of others. It is up to the courts to determine the boundaries of these laws and to determine whether a journalist has violated them. Jordan should not rely on a press association to make determinations on whether or not a journalist has violated these laws and to ban journalists based on such determinations.

Furthermore, the government should let the public be free to determine the quality of journalism that it desires. Poor, unprofessional journalists will lose readers and support if the problem is with the quality of their writing.

Fear of foreign encroachment

Another argument for retaining the JPA’s exclusive powers to regulate journalists is to safeguard Jordanian journalism from foreign interference. Ibrahim `Izz al-din, the head of Jordan’s Higher Media Council, told Human Rights Watch that the associations’ efforts have played an important cultural, economic and social role in the nation for fifty years. He fears that relinquishing mandatory membership will lead to foreign-funded offshoot press clubs.

However, many civil society organizations in Jordan are at least partially foreign funded, including the JPA, which has sought European Union funding. No one has imputed that such funding has led to a lowering of standards or infringed in any way on Jordanians’ enjoyment of their rights. Foreign funding of civil society organizations should not be confused with foreign ownership of media corporations, which the Jordanian legislature can choose to regulate. And in any event, the Press and Publications Law already prohibits Jordanian periodicals or specialized publications from receiving foreign funding (Press Law, article 20). It is thus unclear how mandatory membership in the JPA has any connection to foreign encroachment of the Jordanian press. It is clear, however, that mandatory membership in the JPA is not the appropriate mechanism for regulating foreign ownership of Jordanian media.

Association needed to defend press freedoms?

Last, proponents of the status quo point to the relative weakness of press freedoms and to the need, consequently, for a strong association to defend journalists’ rights and freedom of speech. If membership becomes voluntary, they say, the association will lose its membership and, thereby, its power and ability to fight for press freedom.

However, if the association proves itself valuable to journalists and their interests, there is no reason to believe that they will relinquish their membership. On this point, Tariq al-Mumani, the current JPA president, told Human Rights Watch that he believes the association will emerge stronger in any case, because members have come to better appreciate the associations’ services. For example, the JPA supports a Press and Publications bill, tentatively scheduled for parliamentary approval in December 2005, that would decriminalize violations of the Press and Publications Law, substituting fines for prison sentences, among other improvements.

It is clear that association members have serious questions about the usefulness of the association and that many oppose the mandatory membership requirement. In a survey of journalists regarding press freedoms in Jordan in 2004, CDFJ found that over half of respondents considered the association’s “role […] weak or acceptable in defending the press freedom.” During a conference organized by the Global Forum for Media Development in Amman, petitions against membership were circulated and according to an October 14 press release by Internews, which participated in the conference, “opponents of the practice [said that] forced membership in a journalists' syndicate is a commonly used system for controlling the press in the Arab world, in that journalists whose reports displease the syndicate can lose their membership and thus their ability to work as journalists.” Many in the audience criticized the syndicate as “a tool for repression of free media”.

Mandatory membership in the Jordanian Press Association is but one of several levels of restrictions on freedom of expression in Jordan. Various provisions of the Jordanian Press Association Law, the Press and Publications Law, and several articles in the Penal Code also restrict content. The membership clause is a particularly egregious restriction, as it violates a number of fundamental human rights: freedom of association and expression and the right to choose work freely. By abolishing the mandatory membership requirement, Jordan will be taking an important step in free speech reform. We look to your continued support in lifting this restriction and upholding Jordan’s international human rights obligations.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Leah Whitson

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