Journalists fear government repression in Jordan

Threat of Islamic State seen as justification for clampdown.

Soldiers stand on a tank at the Jordanian-Syrian border. (photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
Soldiers stand on a tank at the Jordanian-Syrian border.
(photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
Tourists flocking to the deserts and archeological wonders of Jordan are an important source of revenue for the Hashemite Kingdom. Of the millions of visitors each year, spellbound by the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, few stay long enough to appreciate the country’s local media scene.
But a report released by Human Rights Watch outlines what the group sees as a dangerous trend by Jordanian authorities following the arrest of Atef al-Jolani, a newspaper editor, and Eyad Qunaibi, an academic.
Jolani, of the daily Assabeel newspaper, was summoned by a Jordanian prosecutor following comments he made in an editorial criticizing government policy, and was later released.
Qunaibi, a university professor, was detained after comments he made on Facebook pointing to what he called the un-Islamic direction Jordanian society was moving in.
“Jordan faces real threats to its security and stability, but these don’t include op-eds about gas cylinders and Facebook posts that peacefully criticize the government,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in the organization’s report.
Traditionally, Jordan has not been viewed by analysts as approaching the levels of human rights violations that were a feature of many of the Middle East’s secular dictatorships. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010, Jordan, a monarchy, has remained relatively stable and has not witnessed the violence that took place in Egypt or Syria.
“Jordan is a country in which, compared to other countries in the region, there is a large degree of freedom of speech, for citizens and the media,” Adam Coogle, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Amman, told The Media Line.
This ends, however, if certain redlines are crossed, including commenting on the actions of the king or criticism of Gulf countries that are allied with Jordan, Coogle said.
Much of the suppression of free speech in Jordan has been aimed at hard-line Salafists, considered dangerous extremists by the government.
Unlike in Iraq or Syria, where the Assad and Hussein regimes brutally suppressed Muslim extremists in the past, Jordan has had a Salafist community for years, Coogle explained. Since the rise of Islamic State, this has become less palatable for the Jordanian government and might explain its recent actions, the researcher explained, adding that Qunaibi was linked to Salafists and had expressed intolerant views.
But it would be a mistake to see the recent arrests as indicative of an administration policy change, Daoud Kuttab, a veteran Palestinian journalist based in Amman, told The Media Line. Rather, the relationship between the government and the media in Jordan had always been erratic, Kuttab, who previously taught at Princeton University, said.
The government has recently moved away from restricting the media and now tends to target individuals expressing critical opinions on social media, Kuttab said. This could change in the future, depending on the whims of the government.
It is not necessary for the administration to overtly control the press today anyway, Kuttab added, because it either directly controls or is able to influence most of the mass media in the country.
Business owners of Jordan’s big media are close to the authorities, he suggested.
“There’s definitely discontent, but outwardly people won’t straight away admit it,” José M., an expat from the US who has lived in Jordan teaching English for the last two years, told The Media Line. When people grow to know each other, then they may become comfortable enough to express their critical opinions about the government, but it takes time, he suggested.
“There’s a select group of vocal youth on social networks that definitely feel open to complain... they’re way more open about what they don’t like,” the English teacher said. But such actions are not the norm, he concluded.
Terrorists’ use of the Internet has been used to justify a general reduction in freedom of expression in Jordan, Basim Tweissi, the dean of the Jordan Media Institute, told The Media Line.
“Freedom of the press in Jordan has been at a standstill in the past few years – taking a step forward, then a step back,” Tweissi said.
At the same time, citizens’ freedom of expression has been curtailed by counterterrorism laws and restrictions on electronic media, he added.
“Jordan has never been in more need of reform to the media and preservation of [its] freedoms than now,” the dean argued.
Jordan, more than any other country in the Arab world, is ready and qualified to advance its media, if a free and vibrant industry can be guaranteed, Tweissi concluded.
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