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Thousands of Jordanian teachers march from the governorship building to the Professional Unions Complex to demand a reversal of the decision to close the Teachers Union, in Irbid, Jordan on August 01, 2020. © Laith Al-jnaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have used a sweeping gag order, harassment, and arrests to limit media coverage of ongoing protests stemming from the arbitrary closure of the Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate on July 25, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Police beat two journalists who covered the protests. Restrictions on teachers’ protest coverage reflected a broader degradation of press freedom in recent years.

“Jordan’s cynical exploitation of arbitrary measures such as gag orders and arrests to silence journalists is only the latest in a series of restrictions on press freedoms in the country,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan will not solve its myriad of economic and political problems by cracking down on journalists and limiting free speech.”

In August, Human Rights Watch interviewed eight local and foreign journalists operating in Jordan. All said that over the past few years, they have experienced increased restrictions on their reporting in the form of gag orders, harassment by security forces, and withholding of permits to report. Most recently, following the closure of the Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate on July 25, the attorney general immediately published a gag order and prohibited the publication or discussion of details surrounding the case.

While the legality of such an order remains unclear, on August 9, Amman’s Magistrates Court issued its own gag order on the trials pertaining to closure of the syndicate. Under Jordan’s press law, judges can ban “any publication related to a case or a crime under investigation.” The gag order in this case, and others in recent months, appears to extend beyond the details of the investigation.

The authorities have arrested at least two journalists in relation to their coverage of ongoing teachers’ protests, and two were beaten by security forces while attempting to cover protests. Laith al-Juneidi, a photojournalist for the Turkish Andolu Agency with over 10 years of experience, was arrested on August 9 while covering teachers’ protests in Irbid, a city in northern Jordan.

An informed source told Human Rights Watch that al-Juneidi was standing on the side when clashes erupted between the police and protesters. The source said that four men dressed in civilian clothes approached him, saying they were from Preventive Security, a branch of Jordan’s Public Security Directorate, and asked him what he was filming.

Al-Juneidi immediately showed them his press accreditation, but one of the men grabbed it out of his hand, and the men started beating him with their hands and a plastic handcuff. The source shared a video of al-Juneidi being dragged by the police. They put him in a police vehicle with 13 others detained at the protest. He was released a few hours later, after the Turkish Embassy intervened.

The Associated Press (AP) reported on July 29 that police had attacked an AP video journalist, Omar Akour, during a protest in Amman earlier that day. The report said that police attacked him even after he identified himself as a journalist: “Akour fell to the ground after being struck, where another policeman kicked him. Police smashed his cellphone, destroying the footage he filmed of the clashes.”

On July 27, Basil Okoor, editor-in-chief of Jo24, a local news website, was called to the Criminal Investigation Department’s Cybercrimes Unit. He said that police later took him to the public prosecutor, who asked him about two Facebook posts and Jo24 articles and told him that he had broken the gag order. Okoor denied this, indicating that his investigation was not about the shutdown, but rather the reaction to it. Okoor was released a few hours later.

The gag order pertaining to the teachers’ syndicate is only the latest measure to intimidate journalists and restrict their access and ability to report. At least five journalists said that the General Intelligence Directorate has regularly contacted them about their journalism. They said that intelligence officers have called them and asked why they wrote reports on specific issues or warned them not to write about a specific issue.

Three reporters who work with prominent news agencies said that almost every other day they receive instructions from the intelligence agency or their agencies not to write or report on an issue.

“I am visibly being monitored and shadowed when I speak with individuals, and I never had that happen before,” said a foreign journalist with 15 years of experience working in Jordan.“[It has] gotten to the point where every other meeting I have, someone is shadowing me, pretending to read a book upside down and angling themselves so they can hear me.”

Ahmed Zu’bi, a Jordanian reporter who has written for Ra’i newspaper, said that the newspaper has not allowed him to write articles since September 2019 due to his “political opinions and reform ideas.” Zu’bi said that in early July, he was called into a court under Jordan’s infamous Cybercrimes Law due to a Facebook post regarding corruption in Jordan.

In other instances, Jordanian authorities withheld permission or permits from journalists to operate or attend events and report on them. One journalist said that the authorities denied her authorization to attend and report on the World Economic Forum in Jordan. The journalist had to use high-level connections to get the authorization through.

Two journalists said they are now required to obtain a second permission in addition to their accreditation to be able to cover protests. One journalist said that even though they fulfilled all the requirements for such permission, it was withheld.

“These are preemptive moves,” said Rana Husseini, a journalist and women’s rights activist. "I self-censor before I write on many occasions. They have to allow for more press freedom. We are hesitant sometimes to express our opinions and on some certain occasions cannot address issues that matter to the public.  They should allow us to operate freely – or everything will sound like it is coming out a government mouthpiece."

Under international human rights law, freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental human right, one that is essential to individual human dignity. Under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Jordan acceded to in 1975, everyone is entitled to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. While the ICCPR permits restrictions on freedom of speech to protect others, such restrictions are narrowly defined and operate under strict conditions, including that they must be proportional and necessary for the accomplishment of a specific objective as indicated in Article 19 (3).

The General Intelligence Directorate, Gendarmerie Forces, and the Criminal Investigations Department are key agencies identified as being involved in violations against journalists in Jordan that Human Rights Watch has documented. The Gendarmerie Forces and Criminal Investigations Department operate under the umbrella of the Interior Ministry, led by Salameh Hamad.

The interior minister should instruct these agencies to halt all harassment and intimidation of journalists and allow them to operate freely, Human Rights Watch said. The Justice Ministry and the attorney general’s office should ensure that gag orders are clearly limited to the content of investigations and not used to prevent public debate on sensitive issues.

“Jordan’s shrinking space for journalists to operate reflects the country’s slide into repression,” Page said. “The government needs to act decisively to hold those responsible for the harassment and intimidation of journalists accountable.”

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