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In Jordan, the Debate on Media Freedom Continues

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Demonstrators protest against restrictions on media freedom in Jordan. Photo al-Jazeera.

The debate on the state of media freedom in Jordan rumbles on this year, with conflicting stories emerging from different camps. The government claims it imposes no restrictions on the press, whereas journalists insist they are the target of increasingly stringent media laws.

The Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) says media freedom in Jordan is declining. In 2015, ten journalists were detained under the country’s controversial Anti-Terrorism Law, the highest number in a decade, according to a CDFJ report titled Behind Bars. The journalists were charged with publishing information that may undermine national security, slander and character assassination.

The report, which was published on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, showed that 88.4% of the 251 journalists surveyed believe media freedom in the kingdom had witnessed a setback compared to the previous year, with 32% of respondents rating it as ‘low.’

In an interview with Fanack, CDFJ President Nidal Mansour called on the government to revise or scrap laws that restrict the work of journalists, such as the Anti-Terrorism Law and the Information Systems Crime Law introduced in 2015.

Article 11 of the Information Systems Crime Law gives judges and public prosecutors the power to imprison for a minimum of four months ‘anyone who intentionally and without authorization or in violation or excess of an authorization accesses a website or information system in any manner with the purpose of viewing data or information that is not available to the public and which touches upon national security, foreign relations of the kingdom, general security or national economy’.

In its 2016 Freedom of the Press report, Freedom House, a US-based political freedom and human rights advocacy group, described Jordan as ’not free’ when it comes to media freedom. Jordan was ranked 145 out of 199 countries, the same position as the previous year. On a scale of 0 to 100 (0 being the most free and 100 being the least free), Jordan scored 66.

Khetam Malkawi, a journalist at The Jordan Times, blamed media-related laws for the decline in media freedom in the country.

“Journalists are afraid to write about issues that may anger the authorities,” she told Fanack, adding that even looking for details on certain issues related to national security can be enough to slap journalists with a gag order.

Authorities recently issued two gag orders preventing the press from writing about or covering the deaths of five intelligence officers and the terror attack on a military forward post near the Syrian border in June.

In the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Without Borders in April, Jordan ranked 135, up from 143 in 2015. Despite this improvement, the report criticized government control of the media, particularly news websites.

The report said that dozens of websites have been blocked in Jordan since 2013, on the pretext that they are unlicensed. It also criticized the government for prosecuting journalists under the Anti-Terrorism Law.

But Minister of Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said that media freedom in the kingdom is better and continues to improve, adding that the government considers media outlets as an important fourth estate.

He also said that the government will continue to review legislation and is open to amending legislation that may restrict media freedom, including the cybercrime and anti-terrorism laws.

Abdel Wahab Zgheilat, former editor-in-chief of Al Rai daily, urged authorities to support the work of professional media and to remove restrictions that may hinder their work.

“It is hard to control media now because the world has become an open digital space,” he noted.

Jordan can do better when it comes to media freedom, said Zgheilat, who is currently head of the freedoms committee at the Arab Journalists Union, adding that the recent decline in media freedom is harming Jordan’s image.