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(Beirut) – Jordanian authorities arrested the publisher and chief editor of the Jafra News website on September 17, 2013, for “disturbing relations with a foreign state.”  The website had posted a YouTube video allegedly showing a Qatari prince sitting, dancing, and showering with several women.

The Jordanian authorities should drop the charge and free the two men – Nidhal al-Fara’neh, the publisher, and Amjad Mu’ala, the chief editor. The law is too broad and vague and represents an impermissible restriction on free expression by criminalizing peaceful criticism of foreign countries and leaders.

“Jordanian authorities who talk about reform lose their credibility when they arrest journalists for posting a YouTube video allegedly about a prince’s hijinks,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director. “Jordan should be more concerned about harming its international image by prosecuting journalists, than about losing face with Qatar over a lone posting on a news site.”

About 15 police officers raided the Jafra News office after 4 p.m. on September 17, searching for al-Fara`neh and Mu`ala, who were not there, a Jafra News employee told Human Rights Watch. The police arrested them later that evening.

The Jafra employee said that the police officers who searched the office mentioned the video, which the site posted on September 14. The video, which an unknown third party produced and posted to YouTube in July 2012, shows a man, or men, lounging on a bed with a woman, dancing with another, and showering with a third. The video title claims the figure in all cases is a brother of Qatar’s ruler. The Jafra employee said the site had no connection with the production of the video.

Jordanian media reports said that an Amman prosecutor on September 18 charged al-Fara`na and Mu`ala with violating article 118 of Jordan’s penal code, which punishes “anyone who engages in acts, writings, or speeches not approved by the government that would subject Jordan to the danger of violent acts or disturb its relations with a foreign state…” The charge is punishable by a minimum of five years in prison.

The prosecutor transferred the case to Jordan’s quasi-military State Security Court, which under Jordan’s State Security Court Law of 1959 has jurisdiction over all penal code crimes “against the internal or external security of the state.” The men’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he had not been able to post bail as of September 19, because the case file had not yet arrived at the State Security Court from the public prosecutor’s office.

Another Amman-based lawyer told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors violated the Press and Publications Law when they transferred the case to the State Security Court. Under article 42 of the press law, a judge with the Court of First Instance who specializes in press and publications cases has jurisdiction over journalists facing charges related to Jordan’s external or internal security, rather than the State Security Court. Article 42 also says that media workers may not be detained for expressing opinions in speech or writing.

Unlike many news websites that authorities censored in June 2013 for refusing to register with Jordan’s press and publications department, Jafra News registered and complies with 2012 press law amendments that bring news websites into the same regulatory structure that governs print publications. Human Rights Watch criticized the 2012 regulations for online media as arbitrary interference in the right to free expression.

Though some websites, such as Jafra News, have registered with the press department, dozens of others refused and have been blocked inside Jordan since June 2, 2013, on the order of the director of the press department.

“Jordanian authorities seem to want to have it both ways with the staff of online publications,” Stork said. “Jordan subjects online journalists to the same harassment and threat of prosecution as print journalists under the press law, but denies them the few protections other journalists have, such as trials in the regular courts.”

Despite guarantees of free expression in article 15 of Jordan’s 2011 constitution, Jordanian authorities continue prosecuting media professionals and ordinary citizens for dubious criminal offenses related to speech. In addition to article 118, Jordanian prosecutors continue to use many vague provisions of Jordan’s 1960 penal code to criminalize peaceful expression.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under article 15 of Jordan’s constitution. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Jordan is a state party, protects the right to freedom of expression, including “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 19).

International law allows only those narrowly defined restrictions on these rights that are in conformity with the law and are necessary in a democratic society for national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

“King Abdullah has talked about reform, but he needs to make it real,” Stork said. “King Abdullah should urge the parliament to remove all penal code and press code articles that interfere with the right to peaceful expression.”

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