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How Jordan Censors Journalists

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It was 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 3, and my cellphone would not stop ringing. I knew who the caller was and exactly what he wanted, but I didn’t pick up. Three hours earlier, the editor of the news website AmmanNet—which I oversee as the director-general of Jordan’s Community Media Network—had posted a newswire rewrite of a BBC Arabic summary of the Pandora Papers, a sweeping leak that included details of the foreign real estate holdings of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. According to the leaked documents, obtained and published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Jordanian monarch purchased some 14 posh homes in the United States and in Europe between 2003 and 2017, at a cost of $106 million.

Noticing that my phone appeared to be busy, the caller turned to WhatsApp to tell me what he wanted. “Good evening,” he wrote, using an endearing Arabic word that means “my dear.” He then sent a link to AmmanNet’s story—titled “Pandora Papers Show the Real Estate the King Owns Abroad.”—and texted: “Please erase it because of the importance.”

I was dealing with the liaison press relations officer in Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate.

I punted for time. “I will deal with this issue immediately,” I replied. The officer repeated himself, using the soft but insistent, “Please, my dear.” I used the few minutes I knew I had to call the chairman of our board for direction. He wasn’t around. I then phoned a senior colleague to ask her for advice. She reminded me that the radio station Radio al-Balad—also part of the Community Media Network—was planning to apply for a license in the town of Mafraq. If we didn’t withdraw the story, “you can forget about ever getting a license,” she advised.

Eight minutes after the General Intelligence Directorate’s messages, I finally asked AmmanNet’s managing editor, Mohammad Ersan, to delete the story. My immediate concern was the welfare of our staff. Though it is unclear what the immediate consequences would have been had I not complied with the General Intelligence Directorate, it would have almost certainly started a cycle of bureaucratic harassment that could have led to the denial of grants and caused other serious limitations to our work.

As far as I am aware, we had been the only media outlet in all of Jordan to report on Abdullah’s implication in the Pandora Papers, and, for all of three hours, many Jordanians had been able to read in Arabic about the luxury properties owned by their king. Then, the page went dark, and they turned again to articles by the Washington Post and other foreign—including non-Jordanian Arab—outlets.

Though I was constantly in touch with our editors during those crucial Sunday evening hours, the person legally contracted as AmmanNet’s editor in chief realized only belatedly what was happening. That’s because he isn’t a real member of our newsroom. Since 2014, every news website in Jordan has been required to have an editor in chief who has been a member of the largely pro-government Jordan Press Association for at least four years. AmmanNet’s hire for the position, Walid Hosni, does no editorial work but is legally responsible for our publication. For all intents and purposes, Ersan is our top editor.

Hosni was about to call when Ersan took down the story. He was worried that it may have breached Jordanian law. In a monarchy like Jordan, the king is beyond reproach. Abdullah rules via a government that he appoints and can remove at any time. Accountability, in this sense, means allowing this government to take the blame—but never involving the monarch who sits above it all.

According to the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Jordan ranks 129th out of 180 nations in press freedom. This dismal ranking is largely a result of the country’s restrictive media laws and practices. Perhaps most detrimental are its laws about media ownership, which have given the government a direct role in the operations of most media companies and created a prevailing culture of self-censorship among journalists. At times, they have left the 10 million people living in Jordan dependent on international media to know what is happening in their own country.

The Jordanian government owns—either directly or indirectly—most of the media within its borders. Jordan Radio and Television is set up as a public broadcaster, but in reality it is nothing more than a government mouthpiece. The broadcaster is funded by a license fee that collects 1 dinar (about $1.50) from every household’s monthly electric bill, and its board and director are appointed by the king-anointed government and rarely deviate from the official line. I cannot remember the last time an opposition leader appeared on one of its programs.

A new broadcaster, Al-Mamlaka, was created by royal decree in 2015 with the bold aim of competing with other Arabic-language TV giants like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Al-Mamlaka is funded directly from the government’s coffers, and the government appoints its board and CEO. Since its founding, the station has tried to move away from the government line, and its annual budget of 20 million dinar (around $28 million) has been pared down to 9 million dinar ($13 million) without much explanation.

This movement, however, is hardly significant: Al-Mamlaka still failed to cover both Abdullah’s conflict with former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein—which the king likened to an attempt at “sedition”—as well as the Pandora Papers. Meanwhile, the private TV station Roya TV, owned by the family-run Sayegh Group, has attempted to walk a tightrope in its political coverage. After a few difficult years in the red, Roya TV is finally making money—but not touching any of the big stories about the monarchy that make waves abroad.

The government also has its hands full on the radio. Jordan’s leading station, Hala, is owned by the Jordanian Armed Forces, and another top station, Amen FM, is owned by the Jordanian national police. Though these stations are dependent on advertising to fund their programs, their operating costs are often low because of their connections to the government.

In addition to Hala and Amen FM, there are a number of radio stations connected to public institutions such as the municipality of Amman, whose mayor is appointed by the king, or publicly funded universities, whose boards are appointed by the king’s government. These stations are exempted from paying a hefty commercial radio license fee of 25,000 dinar (around $36,000) for stations in Amman; the fee is slightly lower outside of the city. Community and not-for-profit radio stations like Radio al-Balad are also subject to this fee.

Not much is different in the newspaper world. The semi-governmental Social Security Corporation owns a majority stock in Al-Rai, Jordan’s newspaper of record, and a minority share of Ad-Dustour, another prominent paper.

Many other media outlets, such as the newspaper Alghad, are owned by businesspeople in bed with the government. These outlets rarely move beyond what they perceive to be acceptable parameters of media coverage, creating the problem of self-censorship. The Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists carries out an annual survey of journalists in Jordan. When asked if they practice self-censorship regularly, 94 percent of respondents to the 2017 survey said yes.

In addition to Jordan’s regulations on media ownership, many other laws in the country impair—directly or indirectly—the work of journalists. The Press and Publications Law, passed in 1998, regulates the work of print publications and books, and it lists many exceptions to the freedom of expression enshrined in Jordan’s constitution. The Audiovisual Media Law was issued in 2003 and regulates licenses for radio and TV stations. It also stipulates that Jordan’s Media Commission be run by a government appointee, and that the commission has the right to shutter broadcasters if they violate one of its many murkily defined prohibitions on content. Jordan’s penal code, anti-terrorism law, tort and slander law, and lèse-majesté law, among others, also stifle a free press.

The digital revolution initially allowed Jordanians to consume media beyond what is officially approved by the government, but the web quickly became beset by its own restrictions. Initially, the government relied on the blurred line between online and print publications to censor digital media. In time, the government has hardened its stance, subjecting digital media to much more restrictive regulations, perhaps a recognition of its unchecked power.

In 2013, Jordan blocked 300 news websites for not applying for a newspaper license. In 2015, the government passed a controversial cybercrime law that tightened restrictions on digital expression. Most controversial among its provisions is Article 11, which allows the government to detain any person, including a journalist, if the General Intelligence Directorate feels that what they wrote online is defamation. This is in contrast to the Press and Publications Law, which has been updated since its passage and now includes a clause that journalists cannot be imprisoned for what they write in print media.

As a result, a journalist could get away with an article published in a print newspaper but would be jailed (pending a judge’s ruling) if the very same article appeared online. The list of forbidden topics are numerous and vague in nature, but they generally include issues such as national unity, Jordanian identity, and monetary policy surrounding the dinar. The monarchy and the armed forces are absolute red lines.

In a further attempt to curtail online media, the newly appointed head of the Media Commission, Tareq Abu Ragheb, in August attempted to introduce new draft guidelines that would have raised the annual license fee of a news website tenfold—from 50 dinar to 500 dinar (around $70 to $700)—and license streaming services like Netflix at the rate of 2,500 dinar annually, almost $3,500, akin to a TV station license. That effort failed due to a strong and united reaction from the journalism community.

Some media outlets, such the Community Media Network’s own Radio al-Balad and AmmanNet, are able to continue working in this difficult environment. But we’re always watching our backs. As a general rule of thumb, I try to shield my journalists from pressure from the General Intelligence Directorate and ensure they don’t practice self-censorship. But when they see AmmanNet take down a story, as we did with our report on the Pandora Papers, this undoubtedly has effects on their collective psyche, as they become more hesitant to write and publish pieces on contentious issues.

Ironically, on the same day that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released its Pandora Papers reports, Jordan was making a series of moves toward political reform. On Oct. 3, a 92-person royal commission made up of Jordanians of all walks of life handed the king a set of proposals for changes to Jordan’s electoral system and party law. They suggested a 10-year road map during which the kingdom would move from an all-encompassing monarchy to parliamentary rule, where the monarch holds nothing more than symbolic powers.

This June, Abdullah had tasked the commission with modernizing Jordan’s electoral and political party laws, with the aim of transitioning Jordan toward becoming a constitutional monarchy like Sweden or the United Kingdom. The king has said he wants to leave his son, Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah, with a more participatory system of government, though it is hard to say whether the effort will lead to genuine reform.

This follows a rare decision by Abdullah to pardon all those accused of defaming him and advise the government to decriminalize Jordan’s defamation law as it pertains to the royal family. Both may be responses to the crisis of legitimacy Abdullah experienced after his April conflict with Hamzah bin Hussein, who is perceived to be much more popular across the kingdom.

But this proposed political reform will not go anywhere if it is not matched with an equally bold revolution in media laws and media ownership, as well as in the conduct of the government in trying to quell criticism. Freedom cannot just be about changing the electoral and party laws. Rather, it requires an atmosphere in which everyone has the opportunity to criticize those in power regardless of their position or seniority.

Indeed, in a statement released on Oct. 4, the Royal Hashemite Court confirmed the king’s real estate holdings mentioned in the Pandora Papers, calling them “not unusual nor improper.” That the monarchy acknowledged the revelations is important. But that it had to be the first and only voice to do so—at a set, chosen time no less—points to a press landscape that remains deeply problematic.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.