AMMAN, Jordan – The arrest of Muhammad Dahabi, who once headed Jordan’s intelligence services, is sending shock-waves through the kingdom – and not just because a powerful official has been ensnared in a widening anti-corruption drive, but because many of the country’s leading journalists have been implicated as well.
Dahabi ran the General Intelligence Directorate from 2005 to 2009 and in that role would have once been considered untouchable. But now is accused of laundering millions of dollars through local banks and is being held in Jweidah prison while an investigation is carried out.
The impact of the arrest has been magnified by a report citing 53 local journalists alleged to have been on Dahabi’s payroll. The list is alleged to include several high ranking journalists, among them the editors-in-chief of government-run newspapers.
“The bitter truth, that many do not realize, is that we have infested corruption within our media sector,” columnist Jihad Musheisen wrote in the daily Al-Ghad
. “We have leading journalists who enjoy the respect of many parties…. The revelation is far from innocent. It indicates that those who pay continue to paint picture of the media and Jordan.”
Faced with an increasingly restive population since the outbreak of the Arab Spring a year ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah has sought to meet popular demands for more openness and democracy – and above all else a crackdown on the country’s pervasive corruption. Over the last several months, the campaign has led to the arrest of several high-ranking officials, including a former mayor and several leading businessmen.
The corruption allegations come as Jordan is struggling with its worst economic downturn in decades as its struggles with a heavy debt load, rising energy prices and reduced foreign aid. The government has exacerbated the problem by cutting the prices of basic necessities, creating jobs and raising salaries of civil servants, costly measures it cannot afford.
The names of the journalists themselves have not been published. The closest anyone has come is a website that posted the initials of those alleged to have taken money from Dhahabi and what they were accused of receiving. These included cash payments ranging from a few thousand dinars to hundreds of thousands of dinars (a Jordanian dinar is worth about 70 US cents) as well as houses and fancy cars.
Local newspapers have been inundated with articles by veteran journalists calling for officials to make the list public as a way of exonerating those not on it from any suspicion. The journalists’ association called on the prosecutor to initiate an investigation that would expose those journalists involved.
Musheisen said in his column that he suspected the leak was done by other journalists who were bribed to do so by officials.
That contention seems to have some basis after the Jafra news agency, the local media outlet that first leaked the news, issued a bizarre statement claiming that one of its own staff was tricked into publishing the list. It offered a “sincere apology,” saying they “should have known better.”
In spite of all the to-do, observers of the local media scene say they are not surprised that journalists have been taking bribes from the secret service, which plays a leading role in the country’s politics. Governments are formed only with the approval of the intelligence department and nominees to high-ranking posts must personally get its approval.
Many believe that strong ties between influential journalists and high-ranking officials, which the bribery allegations exposed, will make it difficult to pin down those who are involved in the fiasco.
Nevertheless, the investigation against Dhahabi is proceeding. A military prosecutor is expected to question him in the coming days on allegations of money laundering. But legal experts say it will be difficult to make the charges stick. They point to the case of a former spy chief, Sameeh Batikhi, who was found guilty of corruption. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but reportedly spent them in a villa in the resort city of Aqaba.
In the case of Dahabi, authorities ordered the central bank to seize $50 million in assets held in local banks while they seized two luxury homes worth millions of dollars and barred Dahabi from leaving the country.
Dahabi is not the last of the powerful figures likely to be swept up in the corruption probe.
A parliamentary committee investigating the dubious sale of a phosphate company revealed last week that pressure was exerted on the government to go ahead with the sale, even though the Brunei-registered company that is the purported buyer does not exist. Some suggest that the buyers of the are fronting for members of the royal family.
Some of the members of parliament involved in the probe said they were pressured to drop their investigation.
Although it remains unclear which members of the royal family are implicated in the case, activists suggest someone close to the king could be involved. Last month, security forces arrested an activist for making accusations that the pro-Western monarch was siphoning-off the country’s assets.
Political analysts say King Abdallah is facing a campaign aimed at tarnishing his image. Those alleged to be behind the campaign are influential groups armed with support from the stronger tribes and a significant network of lawmakers and intelligence officers, who are concerned that the anti-corruption drive threatens their privileges and their jobs.
Holding office is more often linked to the nominee’s tribal background and allegiance to the department than on his or her level of competence.
Among those of the establishment who have suffered in the anti-corruption campaign is former Amman Mayor Omar Maani. He was arrested last month as part of an investigation into corruption and mismanagement. A few days after his arrest, relatives of Maani from the southern tribal town of Maan protested and demanded his release.
Several other suspected officials seemingly remain immune to prosecution, due to the power their tribes wield, activists contend. But Abdullah has said he will do whatever it takes to uproot corruption, but he faces an uphill battle to eradicate the deeply infested phenomenon.