(Amman) – Jordanian authorities in March 2016 proposed sweeping amendments to the country’s association law that would make it harder to create and operate nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. The government increasingly used press gag orders to prevent reporting on sensitive issues.

Friends and relatives hold a picture of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar, who was shot dead, during a sit-in in front of the prime minister's building in Amman, September 25, 2016.

© 2016 Muhammad Hamed/ Reuters

In March 2016, under King Abdullah’s instructions, Jordanian authorities also presented the Comprehensive National Human Rights Plan, a 10-year initiative that calls for changes to numerous laws, policies, and practices. It includes positive changes, such as a commitment to allow suspects the right to a lawyer at the time of arrest and to move jurisdiction over crimes of torture and ill-treatment from the police court to regular courts.

“Jordanian authorities should fulfill the national human rights plan’s agenda and ensure that freedom of association is strengthened rather than threatened,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Steps to prevent the media from reporting on sensitive issues restrict public debate and lead to a loss of trust in government institutions.”

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

In June, Jordanian authorities detained Amjad Qourshah, a university professor and popular Islamic preacher, in connection with an October 2014 video on his Facebook page in which he criticized Jordan’s participation in the US-led coalition’s bombing of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). In August 2016, authorities detained Nahed Hattar, a writer, and charged him with insulting religion for a cartoon on his Facebook page critical of ISIS. Hattar was murdered on September 25, while entering an Amman court.

In 2016, authorities imposed gag orders on news stories such as: a complaint by orphans against the Social Development Ministry; a street assault on an Egyptian worker in Jordan; a security operation in the northern town of Irbid in March; an attack on a General Intelligence Directorate office north of Amman; and the Qourshah and Hattar cases.

In March, the Social Development Ministry issued amendments to Jordan’s 2008 Law on Associations that would place onerous restrictions on the establishment of nongovernmental groups and grant the government legal authority to dissolve groups on vague grounds or deny their ability to obtain foreign funding without justification. The amendments are still under consultation and have not been submitted to parliament.

Jordan hosted more than 656,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. In February, authorities announced plans to allow new legal work opportunities for Syrian refugees, and by November had issued at least 28,000 work permits for Syrians. About 80,000 Syrian children in Jordan were not in formal education, but the Education Ministry took steps to address the obstacles such as relaxing documentation requirements, creating spaces for up to 50,000 more Syrian students, and establishing a “catch-up” program.

On June 21, a suicide car bomb attack on a remote Jordanian military base along Jordan’s northeastern border with Syria killed seven Jordanian soldiers and security officers, prompting authorities to classify the Jordan-Syria border as a closed military zone and halt aid except for water to nearly 80,000 Syrians stuck in the border zone. Authorities allowed the resumption of aid in late November at a new distribution point seven kilometers northwest of one of the camps.