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Jordanian police personnel guard at a checkpoint during the second day of a nationwide curfew, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Amman, Jordan. © 2020 Reuters

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have arrested media workers and others and issued a vaguely worded emergency decree that could chill online discussion about Jordan’s Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said today.

Under the April 15, 2020 decree, sharing news that would “cause panic” about the pandemic in media or online can carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. Since the declaration of an emergency on March 17, Jordanian authorities have detained two prominent media executives, a foreign journalist, and a former member of parliament, apparently in response to public criticism, as well as three people for allegedly spreading “fake news.”

“The Jordanian government has acted decisively to protect its citizens and residents from Covid-19, but recent measures have created the impression that it won’t tolerate criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should protect Jordanians’ ability to discuss Covid-19 online and share news and concerns without fear of arrest.”

The state of emergency, initiated when King Abdullah II issued a royal decree activating Defense Law No. 13 of 1992, grants the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail basic rights, but Prime Minister Omar Razzaz pledged to carry it out to the “narrowest extent” and stated that it would not impinge political rights, freedom of expression, or private property. Any steps to curtail free expression on the grounds of protecting public health must be necessary and proportionate to the threat posed by the speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Paragraph 2.2 of Defense Order No. 8, issued on April 15 under Jordan’s state of emergency, prohibits “publishing, re-publishing, or circulating any news about the epidemic in order to terrify people or cause panic among them via media, telephone, or social media.” The order specifies penalties of up to 3 years in prison, a fine of 3,000 Jordanian Dinars (US$4,230), or both.

Prior to the new order, Jordanian media outlets had reported several arrests, one for “spreading rumors” about Covid-19 in the Sweileh area of Amman, another for “spreading rumors about the government’s intention of declaring a full lockdown,” and another for claiming there was a Covid-19 death in the city of Zarqa. The police announced on April 15 that they were pursuing someone who alleged that there was “disobedience” by prisoners in Amman’s Marka Prison.

On April 10, Roya TV, a popular local media outlet, confirmed the arrests of its general manager, Fares Sayegh, and news director, Mohammad al-Khalidi. Roya TV’s statement said that the arrests were due to a “news report that was aired on Roya News social media pages.” Roya TV confirmed on April 12 that Sayegh and al-Khalidi were released on bail. It is unclear whether they will face charges. Local activists and commentators suggested that the arrests could be related to a widely circulated April 8 video clip in which Jordanian day laborers expressed their Covid-19 concerns.

On April 14, the authorities detained Salim Akash, 40, a Jordan-based Bangladeshi journalist. A family member told Human Rights Watch that three men in civilian clothes arrested Akash in front of his house but refused to identify themselves. The family member said on April 17, Akash called from al-Salt Prison saying that he was going to court for “violating a serious law,” which he did not identify. In early April, Akash shared a TV report on his Facebook profile that featured his reporting on the hardships many Bangladeshi workers are facing in Jordan during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Jordanian authorities also arrested Salim al-Batayneh, 63, a former parliament member, on April 7, and his relative Mo’tasem al-Batayneh. Two family members told Human Rights Watch that the family did not learn their whereabouts until April 12, when a member of the governmental National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) informed them the men were in al-Salt Prison on suspicion of “undermining the political regime,” a terrorism offense under the jurisdiction of the quasi-military State Security Court. Human Rights Watch has documented Jordanian authorities’ abuse of this charge to limit peaceful political activity and criticism.

The family members said they did not know the specific reasons for the arrest. One said “we contacted different security bodies including the Public Security Directorate, General Intelligence Department, and the local governorate … all denied holding him.” The family member said that al-Batayneh is a writer who has criticized the Jordanian government in public for many years but did not know if his arrest was related to any specific criticism.

Following the NCHR call on April 12, family members said, Salim al-Batayneh made a brief call, saying only that he was taking his medication and drinking fluids. He said that he was “with people” but provided no further details. On April 12, al-Batayneh called another family member from al-Salt Prison asking them to hire a lawyer.

A family member of Mo’tasem al-Batayneh, 48, a retired high-ranking police officer, described his arrest. The family member said he was traveling with Mo’tasem at 1:20 p.m. when 4 unmarked vehicles surrounded their car and 10 men in civilian clothes emerged, pointed guns at them, and arrested al-Batayneh.

“We called 911 on the same day but they told us we have to wait for 24 hours,” the family member said. “When we called the next day, they did not tell us where he is, and they shut the line.” Family members said he called on April 12 and confirmed that he is in al-Salt Prison, saying that his case is related to Salim’s. Both were transferred to Qafqafa Prison on April 26.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted “in times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But the measures must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that the situation would require state parties to “provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.”

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate, and may not put in jeopardy the right itself.

On March 20, the prime minister imposed a mandatory curfew from 6 p.m. until 10 a.m., with exceptions for those holding valid permits. Between March 17 and April 14, the authorities said they apprehended 10,874 people who violated the curfew and seized 6,814 vehicles. Under Defense Order No. 3, people who violate the curfew are subject to a fine between 100 Jordanian Dinars ($141) and 500 Dinars ($705), while seized vehicles are confiscated for 30 days in addition to a fine.

“Jordan is confronting unprecedented challenges as it deals with Covid-19, but the crisis should not be used as a pretext to limit free expression,” Page said.

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