When outgoing Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Taher Odwan tendered his resignation last week over government-proposed legislation, the move spoke in volumes what others whispered for months: press freedoms in Jordan are sliding.
From the streets to the courts, journalists in Jordan face the dual pressures of legal action and physical harm amidst the Kingdom’s reform drive, analysts say.
As the Arab Spring rolls into summer, the future of press freedoms in Jordan hangs in the balance.
In his letter of resignation, Odwan listed a package of laws set to go before Parliament - namely amendments to the Press and Publications Law, the Anti-Corruption Commission Law and the Penal Code - as well as a failure to address ongoing attacks on journalists as “blows to press freedoms”.
With Odwan’s declaration - and as supposed details of the package of laws are leaked - opposition from media practitioners is growing.
Of greatest concern to champions of the press are the proposed amendments to the Press and Publications Law, which allegedly place greater restrictions on local news websites and, according to some, give the government the authority to shut down news websites.
The amended Anti-Corruption Commission Law, which is expected to include an article penalising media outlets that publish information regarding ongoing cases, has also stirred a debate, observers say.
“According to what we have learned, under this law, any outlet that publishes news on an open corruption case will be breaking the law,” said Fahed Kheitan, Arab Al Yawm chief editor.
“This sets a dangerous precedent.”
Also drawing concerns are amendments to the Penal Code, which allegedly list character assassination as a crime and raise the financial penalties for defamation and slander.
Odwan declined to comment, reiterating instead statements made in his letter of resignation warning that the package of laws represents a threat to press freedoms.
Should the proposed legislation contain the articles hinted at by Odwan and others, the laws represent nothing short of “a disaster” for journalists, according to Nidal Mansour of the Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ).
“This government talks about press freedoms during the day and we discover they work against media in the night,” Mansour charged.
Jamil Nimri, columnist and Irbid MP, cautioned that deputies have yet to examine the legislation to pass judgement.
“We are against any law that limits press freedoms, and we will definitely be studying this legislation closely,” said Nimri, chairman of the House National Guidance Committee.
“At the end of the day these laws may be protecting the rights of private citizens, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of press freedoms.”
Although Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit met with the Jordan Press Association (JPA) on Sunday to allay their fears, some claimed the gesture did not go far enough to repair what they view as an increasingly uneasy relationship between the Cabinet and the press.
The overall concern is that the package of laws may render the Cabinet-endorsed media strategy - a much heralded document that was to guide the sector for the next five years - effectively null and void.
“The media strategy is dead,” said JPA President Tareq Momani.
According to Momani, the potential of a greater government involvement in the media sector contradicts the strategy, which was developed by practitioners and government officials and lays out ethical guidelines for news websites and print media, further calling into question the future relationship between authorities and the press.
“Two months of hard work and compromise was erased overnight.”
Attacks on the rise
When Rasha Wahsh, Al Quds Satellite Network correspondent, went to cover a rally in the Jordan Valley demanding the right of return to commemorate the Nakbeh, physical safety was far from her first concern.
After she and her cameraman Abdullah Rawashdeh were attacked, and their camera destroyed, her view of the climate of press freedoms “changed”.
“I never thought this could happen in Jordan,” Wahsh said.
The reporter is among the growing list of journalists who have come under attack by so-called “thugs”: roaming gangs of plain-clothed men who claim to be concerned citizens expressing their patriotism at pro-reform rallies.
Involved in clashes with protesters at Al Husseini Mosque, the Interior Ministry Circle and the Jordan Valley, so-called thugs have gained a reputation as being indiscriminate in their violence.
However, as soon as the sticks and rocks come out, those carrying cameras never fail to become instant targets.
One journalist, who did not wish to reveal his name or outlet affiliation for fear of reprisal, claimed that so-called hired thugs are being used to create “an atmosphere of intimidation”.
“We know that they are trying to stop us from doing our job and silence any voice different to theirs,” he said.
Some see a direct link between the increased number of attacks on journalists and the rise in pro-reform protests across the Kingdom.
According to Kheitan, the assaults are a result of security services dealing with pro-reform protesters and the subsequent international media attention with “the old mentality”.
“They come in thinking that using force or the threat of force will place the situation under control, which just doesn’t work today.”
Others claim that the attacks are a direct response to a bolder Jordanian press, as journalists encouraged by the Arab Spring take aim at government officials, unveil high-level corruption and address previously “red-line” taboo topics.
“As people fight for the freedom of the press, those who are against it are becoming more aggressive,” Mansour charged.
Although the CDFJ has no official data regarding the number of attacks on journalists in 2011, unofficial estimates place the number at over two dozen since the beginning of pro-reform protests in mid-January.
While the emergence of so-called thugs has made coverage of demonstrations a risky venture, for some journalists, the violence and intimidation has hit closer to home as the offices of Al Jazeera, Al Muharir.com and - most recently - Agence France-Presse have been either threatened or ransacked.
In each case, the attack was preceded by phone threats which journalists charge were not taken seriously or acted upon swiftly enough by authorities, who have repeatedly denounced any violence against media personnel.
With attacks continuing and few people brought to justice, the government’s sincerity in its reform efforts are at stake, says Mousa Barhoumeh, former Al Ghad chief editor.
“Never in Jordan’s history have we had this level of attacks on journalists,” Barhoumeh said.
Barhoumeh, a member of the National Dialogue Committee, claimed that the status of press freedoms is placing the entire reform process “in jeopardy”.
“If this doesn’t change soon, the ceiling of press freedoms will hit the floor.”
The government carries “direct” responsibility for safety of local and international reporters, according to the JPA. Others hint at a closer relationship between authorities and the spike in attacks.
The Committee for the Protection of Journalists, a New York-based NGO, released a statement last week calling on the government to hold accountable those behind ongoing attacks on journalists, claiming that officials’ failure to bring perpetrators to justice amounted to a “tacit endorsement of violence against the press”.
Despite widespread condemnation of the attacks, journalists in Jordan say they are left with few guarantees that when they go out in the field they won’t be faced with violence or arrest.
“There is an oncoming war over press freedoms and I do not think there will be any compromise now between the media and the government,” Mansour said.
No matter what laws or threats are passed, the battle to raise press freedoms will continue, according to Wahsh.
“The pressures may be great, but so is our duty.”