(New York) - Jordanian authorities should respect the right to free expression in the weeks leading up to national elections on November 9, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today.
In the past 10 days, authorities have arrested young people gathering for a rally calling for a boycott of the elections and censored a news item critical of the government, in violation of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
"Jordanian authorities are trying to delegitimize the opposition, but instead they are delegitimizing the elections," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "These recent incidents of censorship and arrests of critics cast doubt on the open contest of ideas necessary for the ‘transparent and fair' elections King Abudullah promised."
The rally was planned by the Youth Office of the Popular Unity Party. The Youth Office held a news conference on October 13 to announce a campaign called "We Have Come to Make You Hear Our Voice." Party officials said they were responding to the government's "Make Us Hear Your Voice" campaign, which is urging young voters to participate in the elections.
The Popular Unity Party's campaign is to press for a system of proportional representation, among other concerns, Dr. Fakhir Da''as, a party official, told Human Rights Watch. The current "first-past-the-post" electoral system gives higher representation to sparsely populated districts, where Jordanian tribes that are predominantly government loyalists live, and lower representation to densely populated urban centers with high numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
The demand to change to a system of proportional representation has been a hotly contested political issue in the Kingdom. In November 2009, King Abdullah II dissolved parliament, calling for new elections within a year. In May, the government decreed a new election law, but it maintained the present system with only minor changes in election districts.
"‘The government is here to silence unwelcome voices' could be an apt slogan for the arrest of campaigners who sought to bring their concerns directly to the attention of the prime minister," Wilcke said. "One wonders which youth voices the government claims to have heard."
On September 16, the party activists planned to gather at 5 p.m. in front of the prime minister's office in support of their campaign. By 4:30 p.m. security forces had arrested a number of activists as they got out of cars.
Da''as told Human Rights Watch that when he heard about the arrests, he immediately made calls to transfer the rally to the Professional Associations Complex, where police usually do not disturb protests. When Da''as got to the area around the prime minister's office to look for his colleagues, there was an unusually heavy security presence, he said. He parked his car a few streets away, but as he got out, plain clothes Preventive Security officials told him to verify his identity, and then arrested him.
In all, security forces arrested 18 persons, including one journalist and two students who said they were just passing by, and held them for three hours at the Central Amman police station, before releasing them all with a written pledge to respect Jordan's laws.
On October 9, security forces arrested about 35 students visiting a professor at his farm in Ma'daba, south of the capital, Amman, alleging that they were campaigning for a boycott of the elections by the Islamic Action Front (IAF), a political party. The security forces took the students to Ma'daba police station, and then to the General Intelligence Department. They were detained for 20 hours before being released without charge, Jamil Abu Bakr, a party official, told Human Rights Watch.
The Popular Unity Party and the IAF are the only two parties that have announced a boycott of the elections.
In an episode of censorship on October 18, Radio Balad complained to the National Center for Human Rights, a national human rights institution established by law and funded in part by the government, that Dr. Sa'd al-Wadi al-Manasir, the Zarqa governor, had denied permission to the station's application for a debate among candidates for Zarqa's first electoral district. He provided no reasons.
The station planned the broadcast under the headline "Unemployment and Environment." Radio Balad said that unemployment and the environment are among the most pressing issues for local citizens, that the candidates had agreed to participate, and that Zarqa's Chamber of Commerce had agreed to host the event. After he denied the radio station permission to hold the debate, Dr. al-Manasir instructed the Chamber of Commerce in writing not to be the host for the event, according to a statement by Ammannet.net, Radio Balad's parent company.
The government has also censored news about its own internal disagreements. On October 10, government officials stopped the print run of Al-Majd weekly newspaper, Fahd Rimawi, the chief editor, told Human Rights Watch. The paper uses the printing presses of Al-Ra'i newspaper, in which the state holds a stake, and censors there stopped the print run, objecting to two news items, Rimawi said. After negotiations, he withdrew one news item, but was allowed to keep the other, regarding withdrawal of nationality from Jordanians of Palestinian origin under the headline "Royal Orders to Stop Stripping National Numbers From Those Who Have Obtained Yellow Bridge Crossing Cards."
The blocked news item dealt with differences between the prime minister's office and one of the government agencies, Rimawi said. A person who said he had read the deleted news item told Human Rights Watch that it alleged that the prime minister's office had criticized the General Intelligence Department for not backing the government's policies during the election campaign.
"The government should persuade Jordanians to participate in elections with the strength of its arguments, not the bullying of its censors," Wilcke said.
Article 19 of the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR), which became domestic Jordanian law following its publication in the Official Gazette in June 2006, recognizes everyone's "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." Article 21 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.
In May 2007, Jordan adopted a new Press and Publications Law that made no provisions for censorship prior to publication. In July 2008, Jordan adopted an amended Law of Public Gatherings that exempted gatherings by political parties from the requirement to obtain prior permission from the governor, but only on the parties' own premises. Article 3.a.7. however, also exempted "gatherings that are held during elections," though it does not specify the allowed scope of such gatherings. Under the law, governors may deny permission to any request for a public gathering without having to provide reasons.