(Amman) – Jordanian authorities are curtailing media freedom by detaining and bringing charges against journalists under broad and vague provisions of the country’s terrorism law.
In the most recent case, on July 8, 2015, authorities detained Ghazi al-Marayat, a journalist with the government-controlled al-Rai newspaper, alleging that he violated a media gag order by publishing details about a foiled terrorism plot. They held him for four days for investigation under a vaguely worded provision of the counterterrorism law, and then released him on bail. But he could still face criminal charges. The newspaper said it had not received written notice of the gag order when it published the article.
“Jordan’s concerns over its security situation shouldn’t translate into branding journalists and writers as security threats merely for doing their jobs or expressing themselves peacefully,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Jordan should stop prosecuting journalists and revise its terrorism law to remove vague language used to limit peaceful speech.”
Authorities have circulated several gag orders to news outlets via the state’s media commission in 2015. In addition to the alleged “Quds Force” terrorism plot involved in the al-Marayat case, earlier in 2015 authorities formally banned media from printing photos or news issued by the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, on the murdered Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, as well as critical statements about Jordan’s military after it joined the bombing campaign against ISIS.
Detaining a journalist for investigation based on their writing appears to violate article 42 of the country’s Press and Publications Law, which prohibits pretrail detention for media workers for “expressing opinion by word, writing, or other means of expression,” Human Rights Watch said.
The al-Rai article disclosed details of the State Security Court charge sheet involving an Iraqi-Norwegian man arrested in Jordan in April. Various media outlets had reported on July 6 that the State Security Court issued a media gag order, but the editor-in-chief of al-Rai, Tareq al-Momani, said on July 8 that “Al-Rai newspaper did not receive any written circular from the prosecutor imposing a ban on publishing on the Iranian Quds Force plot.”
A July 9 al-Rai article on al-Marayat’s arrest described the gag order as “verbal,” but an article later that day stated that the State Security Court had finally directed Jordan’s Media Commission to circulate the written gag order.
Earlier on July 9, Jordan’s State Security Court prosecutor ordered al-Marayat detained for 15 days for investigation under article 3b of Jordan’s terrorism law, which prohibits “engaging in acts that expose the kingdom to risk of hostile acts, disturb its relations with a foreign state, or expose Jordanians to acts of retaliation against them or their money.” The charge carries a sentence of between 3 to 20 years.
In another case, Jamal Ayoub, a freelance columnist, has been in jail since April 22 for writing an article that criticizes Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen. Ayoub’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Ayoub is on trial before the State Security Court for “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state” under the terrorism law. The lawyer said that the court rejected numerous bail requests.
Other journalists detained in 2015 include Seif al-Obeidat and the Saraya News website publisher Hashem al-Khalidi on January 28 after the site posted an article on negotiations between Jordan and ISIS over the release of al-Kasasbeh. A statement by Saraya News issued on January 29 said that the men were arrested after the site posted “a quote by a lawyer, whose quotes all the news websites publish as he is the lawyer for the Salafis in Jordan.”
Saraya News removed the article following the arrests, but activists and one government official told Human Rights Watch that the quote included false allegations that Jordan had released an Iraqi women convicted in connection with the 2005 Amman hotel bombings. The statement said she was exchanged for a Japanese prisoner held by ISIS rather than for al-Kasasbeh. Jordan executed the woman, Sajida al-Rishawi, on February 4, shortly after ISIS released a video showing al-Kasasbeh’s immolation.
Authorities released al-Obeidat and al-Khalidi on March 8 on bail, but both are on trial before the State Security Court.
“There is no legitimate reason to jail journalists simply for publishing news that turns out to be wrong,” Stork said. “Instead, authorities should simply deny such stories and set the record straight.”
On July 12, Jordanian authorities detained Jihad al-Mohaisen at Amman’s international airport after he returned from a trip to Lebanon. He said he had been fired in June as a columnist for the independent daily al-Ghad after he wrote on Facebook that he had converted to Shia Islam and wanted to resist “the Zionist enemy” in southern Jordan.
Al-Mohaisen’s brother told Amman News website on July 12 that he had been detained on order of the State Security Court, and later media reports revealed that he is facing charges of “insulting the king” as well as “subverting the political regime,” a vaguely worded terrorism provision.
The charge Ayoub faces, and that al-Marayat potentially faces, “Disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state” has been a crime under Jordan’s penal code for many years and has been used by Jordanian prosecutors against speech critical of foreign rulers. The State Security Court reform law, passed in early 2014, removed this charge from the jurisdiction of the court. But in April 2014, lawmakers reversed the reform by adding the provision to Jordan’s terrorism law, with a penalty of 3 to 20 years in prison.
Article 15 of Jordan’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression. 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). The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has stressed the importance under the covenant of “uninhibited expression” with respect to debate concerning public officials in the political domain and public institutions.
Under article 9.3 of the ICCPR, “[i]t shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.”
“Labeling speech ‘terrorism’ merely for criticizing other countries doesn’t hide the reality that Jordan is punishing citizens who speak freely,” Stork said.