Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Recent law amendment to Jordan’s press and publications law has thrust the country back to the square one where it was before it resumed democratic life in 1989. It will be the barometer with which to gauge the Jordanian policy towards freedoms, human rights and the fast-changing mechanisms of the democratic process, which shift to cope with the regional circumstances and the advancing Western recommendation for reform.
The law has been amended a total of six times since the country resumed parliamentary life in 1989 [the year saw the first general election since 1967] on account of Jordan’s economic and social circumstances, but was also influenced by several other factors including the situation in Iraq, the occupation of Kuwait and its repercussions, the illness of the late King Hussein Bin Talal, and Jordan’s participation in the peace process, which resulted in the Wadi Araba peace treaty that ended various levels of conflict with Israel.
In 1993, the law was amended so that it became one of most impressive laws that the country had ever witnessed; there was no imprisonment penalty for journalists and fines did not exceed 1,000 Jordanian Dinar (JOD) [approximately US $1,411]. During this time, the country lived a truly democratic stage where the press assumed its role of overseeing the government – until it disturbed a number of neighboring Arab states, some of which lodged complaints to the late Jordanian King Hussein Bin Talal. But there was more to it; some members of parliament used the press for their own personal gain by exerting pressure on the government, while some weekly newspaper publishers exploited companies and traders to secure advertisements – which are the necessary backbone for publishing. As such, the government amended the law and introduced severe stipulations for the publication of weekly prints and raised fines, although the latter remained at reasonable figures.
And yet, throughout all the amendments made to the press law by the consecutive Jordanian governments, the incumbent government was always behind spearheading these changes, persuading MPs to accept them. It was only last year that the rules of the game changed when on a number of different occasions MPs clashed with journalists and the latter were physically assaulted. Various incidents of abuse, exercising pressure and clashes have taken place as a result of this law so that some journalists were even referred to disciplinary committees.
Changes to the Jordanian press law were viewed as the most important pivotal event that consumed the entire press arena’s attention back in 2006 by virtue of the conflicts that erupted as a result between journalists and media personnel on the one hand, and the parliament and the government on the other, regarding the detention and imprisonment of journalists who commit crimes under that law, in the cases where the court issues final rulings. This is despite the fact that the original amended draft of the law presented by the government did not contain an article that allows for the imprisonment of journalists.
The 2006 amendment of the law saw the increase of monetary fines, in accordance with Article 45 of the original law specifying a JOD 5,000 (approximately US $7,057) fine instead of the former JOD 100 (approximately US $141) fine on the owner of the periodical publication if they fail to comply with the provisions of paragraph B of Article 20, which stipulates providing the information minister or his deputy with a copy of the annual budget during the first four months of every year.
The draft law imposed a monetary fine of no less than JOD 15,000 (approximately US $21,171) and no more than JOD 20,000 (approximately US $28,228) in the cases where paragraphs C, D and E of Article 36 are violated. This clause relates to four violations: the prohibition of any form of degradation, defamation, vilification and abuse any religion that is protected under the constitution; the defilement and abuse of prophets whether through symbolic, pictorial or written representations; the prohibition of what is deemed insulting to people’s religious sentiments and beliefs or that which instigates sectarianism or racism; and finally, what is considered slander or libel against individuals and their personal freedoms, in addition to the propagation of rumors and false information about individuals.
Generally speaking, reactions by the press and the human rights circles in Jordan condemned the amendment and the Jordanian Press Association (JPA), against what is habitually customary, became actively engaged during the past year, holding numerous emergency meetings with Prime Minister Maaruf al Bakhit and with the parliament. Thus, a rhetorical feast unfolded, held at the complex where the syndicates were located between the syndicates, the press, and the public, all of whom condemned the draft law believing the government to have exploited the incident in which some weekly newspapers had reprinted the cartoons that defiled the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) to pass a law that restricts the freedom of the press. Despite the frequent objections and activities, the parliament turned a deaf ear and completely disregarded the events. At the end of 2006, the National Guidance Committee [the lower house of parliament] decided to retain the clause that allowed for the imprisonment of journalists who commit violations, a challenge that took the conflict between the press and the MPs to a completely different level wherein the journalists persisted in using all available methods to counteract the passing of the law.
However, the meetings held between the lower house of parliament, the JPA and the Supreme Council for Information [a body set up by the monarch in December 1999, responsible for formulating the country’s information policy, as a replacement to the Ministry of Information] failed to come up with any tangible outline of the draft law, especially regarding the articles that ban the detention and imprisonment of journalists and the reduction of fines imposed on them.
Islamist MP and member of the National Guidance Committee, Tayseer Fityani ascribed the disagreement between journalists and MPs to sensitivities between the two sides and to the latter’s dissatisfaction with some actions undertaken by journalists. He said there were several violations made by some journalists that require serious consideration, and that there was a clear sense of supremacy on behalf of some journalists in their dealings with MPs. Fityani accused a number of journalists of blackmailing MPs and asserted that some newspapers dealt with news from a one-sided angle without the considering other opinions, furthermore confirming that there exist newspapers that are subject to various kinds of interference in their work.
In its meeting earlier this month, the parliament retained the article that allows for the imprisonment of journalists and rejected the detention penalty, prohibiting the detention of any individual for expressing an opinion through speech, writing, or any other means of expression. Pertaining to the article on imprisonment, the parliament approved the following wording: “The imprisonment penalty shall not be applicable to cases in which opinion is expressed by word, writing or any other means unless the crimes committed are in violation of Article 26 of the press and publications law.”
Following the meeting, the JPA issued a press release that rejected the lower house of parliament’s decision to approve the imprisonment penalties and welcomed the ban on detention, as did the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), which was of the same view. Although some MPs exerted pressure to cancel the imprisonment penalty, the majority of MPs were for it upholding the view that its abrogation would represent an infringement of the constitution, which maintains that all individuals are equal under the law.
It was clear that the parliamentary debates, where the JPA and various civil society organizations were defending the rights of journalists, that the penalty pertaining to imprisonment sparked disputes within the parliament. A proposal for the amendment was submitted by MP Abdul Rauf al Rawabdeh, which was modified by the National Guidance Committee after concurring with the government. The JPA expressed disappointment at the lower house of parliament’s decision to approve the amended draft law doubling the monetary fines. The JPA explained that the hike in fines in the field of publishing harms the freedom of the press, which constitutes a drawback in journalism as the society had a right to access information and knowledge, and to hold discussion and counsel for all the opinions expressed. It stressed that the present wording of the law is a relapse and a regression from the achievements made by the amendments introduced to the law in 1999, which in turn damages Jordan’s reputation abroad and raises doubts about its reformative efforts.
The JPA confirmed that losing one round is not a loss for journalists nor of the public freedoms in Jordan but a negative mark chalked for the parliament. Rejecting the notion of defeat, it has called on newspapers and journalists to voice their protest and rejection of the parliament’s decision, each in their own way.