King Abdullah of Jordan should support a proposal that would strip the national press association of its power to prevent journalists from working, Human Rights Watch said today. A reform committee is scheduled to present a provision to abolish the law to the king.
Jordanian law should not require journalists to belong to a union, and moves to abolish the requirement are a step forward for freedom of the press, Human Rights Watch said today.
The current law forbids any one from practicing as a journalist unless they are a member of the Jordanian Press Association. The press association describes its mission as protecting press freedom, but only within “the framework of its moral, national and patriotic responsibility.” Jordanian law currently gives the association the authority to punish or expel journalists who express opinions deemed unacceptable under the association’s rules.
“Jordanian law subjects journalists to a double level of censorship,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Not only do they have to abide by laws limiting free speech, journalists must also abide by the whims of the press association.”
The Press Association Law of 1998 prohibits any news or media organization in the kingdom from employing a journalist who is not registered with the Jordanian Press Association.
Journalists in media companies that are wholly or partially government-owned, including the dailies al-Ra’i and al-Dustur as well as the Petra News Agency, dominate the 650 members of the press association who elect its leadership. The association has acted in the past to silence journalists of whose speech, writing or conduct it disapproved.
- In September 2000, the association expelled the president of the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, Nidal Mansur, while he was secretary general of the press association, for accepting foreign funding his organization and not working full-time as a journalist.
- In October 1999, the association’s disciplinary committee decided to expel three journalists, Abdullah Hasanat, Sultan Hattab and Jihad Mumani, for a visit to Israel.
- In 1998, the association rejected the application for membership of Shaker Jawhari, then editor-in-chief of al-`Arab al-Yawm, without explanation, according to Jawhari.
Many association members have serious questions about the usefulness of the association and oppose the mandatory membership requirement. In early October, officers of the press association, the government and journalists attended a media conference where opponents of the membership requirement circulated petitions and said that “forced membership in a journalists’ syndicate is a commonly used system for controlling the press in the Arab world.”
“Jordan’s press association has used the law to limit critical speech and hound dissident journalists,” Whitson said. “The Jordanian government should approve a proposal that would end its ability to restrict freedom of the press.”
The press association argues that only a unified association can promote journalistic ethics and blames slipping standards on the work of unlicensed journalists. Around 100 Jordanian journalists are believed to work without press association membership and thus illegally. According to the Jordan Times of September 20, “the government issued a memorandum [in August] to all public departments banning them from divulging information to or assisting non-association members.” Tariq Mumani, the president of the press association, said that these were “efforts to regulate the profession and stop illegal journalists from violating the law and codes of ethics.”
However, it is not clear that mandatory membership in a press association is the proper mechanism for ensuring that journalists do not harm reputations or otherwise libel or slander people. Jordan already has very broad laws in its penal code against slander, libel and “harming the reputation” of others. Instead of the press association, the courts should establish the boundaries of these laws and determine whether a journalist has violated them.
In March, the government introduced draft legislation that would have reorganized and drastically limited the independence of Jordan’s professional organizations. In a letter to the prime minister, Human Rights Watch rejected those proposals. Since then, a new government has shelved attempts at government interference in the associations, yet suspicion on their part remains.
“The JPA should not confuse the proposal to lift mandatory membership with government attempts to exercise control,” Whitson said. “The human rights case is clear: journalists must be as free in their choice of words as they are in their choice of who represents their interests.”
Mandatory membership violates Jordan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Section 1 of article 22 of the ICCPR stipulates that “[E]veryone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” By requiring mandatory membership, Jordan violates the right to freely choose membership in a union or association.
In Jordan, journalism remains a profession with high bars to entry by law. Media enterprises can only hire persons with certain academic degrees and after they have completed training on the job. As more media content is being produced and consumed on the internet, the boundaries of journalism, and thus the viability of a body regulating entry into the profession, becomes less clear. JPA president Tariq Mumani told Human Rights Watch that the Press and Publications Law currently does not regulate private internet journalism, but only internet sites belonging to Jordanian media corporations that also print newspapers. The high bars set by law to becoming a journalist coupled with the inability to work as a journalist outside of the JPA are an anachronism that limits the right to choose work freely.