Rule Nr. 1: Don't write about the King

Jordan's Fahd Al-Riwami is no stranger to censorship. The editor-in-chief of the weekly Al Majd talks to about what is allowed and what is not in the Hashemite Kingdom.
Peter Speetjens, Contributor
Jordan's parliament, pictured, voted down a proposal this year that would have imposed prison sentences for journalists. But Jordanian journalists still have little to rejoice about. © Khalil Mazraawi / AFP

AMMAN - Journalists all over Jordan let out a sigh of relief on March 21 of this year. On that day, the Jordanian parliament voted down a proposal that would have imposed prison sentences of up to three years for journalists found guilty of defamation, insulting Islam, or spreading false rumours. Parliament did decide to impose fines of up to $30,000, quite a sum in any country, and a fortune in Jordan where the average salary is less than $500 per month.

The proposal to amend the existing Press and Publications Law (PPL) was a direct result of the controversy over the re-publication of the Danish caricatures of the prophet in 2006, for which two Jordanian editors spent two months behind bars. But even if the proposed legislation failed to make it through parliament, there are plenty of provisions in the Jordanian penal code to keep Jordanian journalists on their toes.

Jordan's state censorship may be a bit subtler than, say, its Syrian or Saudi counterparts, but it is nevertheless prevalent: the Hashemite Kingdom ranks 109th on the yearly press freedom index of Reporters without Borders.

Fahd al-Riwami
has intimate knowledge of censorship in Jordan. The editor-in-chief of the political weekly Al Majd (“the glory”), Riwami has seen the inside of Jordan’s prisons on more than one occasion and his newspaper has been shut down many times in its thirteen-year existence.

“Don’t write about the king, don’t write about the army, the secret service, friendly heads of state... There are six times as many topics that we can’t write about than ones we can”, says 60-year old Riwami while he puffs on a cigar, the portrait of former Egyptian president Abdel Nasr on the wall behind his desk a silent indicator of his pan-Arab ideals.

“Jordan’s problem is that it sells itself as a democracy, and Western countries happily buy into it. But a healthy democracy needs an opposition, both in parliament and in the media. And Jordan has neither.”

Riwami’s most recent clash with the authorities was on April 30. From sources in Ramallah and Amman, Riwami had learned of the existence of a U.S.-backed "Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency", aiming to topple Hamas through coordinated action by Fatah, Israel and the international community.

In short: Israel was ready to allow weapons and munitions supplies to Fatah if president Mahmoud Abbas’s party could come up with a sound plan to prevent Qassem rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza.

According to the plan, Israel would gradually ease the military and economic bockade imposed on the Palestinian Territories, a steady stream of money would come in from Western countries, giving Abbas the theoretical opportunity to lift the standard of living of the Palestinians considerably.

Once Fatah was back in the saddle, new elections would be held from which Abbas’s party – it was hoped – would emerge the winner.

Riwami's article outlining tese American plans was groundbreaking by any standards. But before the newspaper could go to print, the Jordanian authorities intervened.

”There is no such thing as a censor in Jordan”, says Riwami. “But Al Majd, like most of the Jordanian papers, is printed by the state printers and they are swarming with Mukhabarat (secret service) agents. It was they who said that the article about the American strategy had to be cut.”

Riwami refused and so Al Majd didn’t come out that week. But, he says bravely, “I did manage to put the key details on our website.”

The next day, none other than the Jordanian Press Association, the journalists union, declared that the article had indeed posed a threat to national security. However, a week later, the article ran in Al Majd anyway after the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a report on the same subject and the Jordanian interdiction didn’t make sense anymore.

Any number of people on the Israeli or the Palestinian side had an interest in leaking the story on purpose. Palestinian critics of the American plan considered it a blueprint for a civil war, while Israeli defense circles feared Israel’s security apparatus would be compromised should the checkpoints in the Occupied Territories be lifted.

The story gained some  credibility when Hamas, after its takeover of Gaza last July, announced that it had discovered thousands of documents allegedly proving far-reaching cooperation between Fatah and the CIA.

Riwami wasn’t the only journalist in Jordan to run into trouble this year. In April, security services confiscated an Al Jazeera interview with prince Hassan, brother of the late king Hussain. The problem - prince Hassan was asked about U.S. journalist Seymour Hersch’s theory that Sunni Muslim extremists in Iraq and Lebanon were being financed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Prince Hassan had answered: “If this is true, we have a big problem indeed.”

Not exactly a confirmation, but apparently not a strong enough denial in the opinion of the Jordanian authorities. Criticizing Saudi Arabia is simply not done in Jordan. The Saudi royal family is Jordan’s biggest financial backer, and nothing is allowed to jeopardize the relationship.

In May, Ahmad Oweidi al Abbadi, of the National Movement, a democracy and human rights advocacy group, was arrested after he had written U.S. Senator Harry Reid to complain about the lack of political freedom and the widespread corruption in Jordan.

When Al Abbadi’s letter found its way to the Internet, he was promptly arrested under article 132 of the Jordanian penal code which makes it illegal to “spread news the author knows to be false or exaggerated, and which can damage the prestige of the state.” Abbadi is still being held.
Riwami too has paid the price for “insulting” both the big neighbour to the South and the Jordanian royalty. In May 2004, he spent two weeks in jail, and Al Majd was suspended from publication for seventy days, after Riwami wrote an editorial in which he called the Saudis “America’s lackeys”.

In 1999, he spent another couple of weeks behind bars for writing an analysis of the rise to power of King Abdullah II. To this day, it remains unclear why king Hussain, on his deathbed, suddenly decided to dismiss his brother, crown prince Hassan, in favour of his son, the present king Abdullah II. Speculating about the reasons behind king Hussain's decision is frowned upon.

On the record, all is well with press freedom in Jordan. Article 15 of the constitution does in fact guarantee freedom of expression in the kingdom. But the devil is in the details: freedom of expression is guaranteed only as far as it doesn’t contravene any other laws. And there are so many other laws and stipulations limiting freedom of the press that Article 15 is, for all practical purposes, a moot point.

Take Article 37 of the PPL. It lists a series of topics that are off-limits to the press, including anything to do with the military and the security services, anything critical of the royal family, anything threatening “national unity”, inciting strikes, sit-ins or demonstrations, discrediting friendly countries or their heads of state, and damaging confidence in the national currency. That doesn’t leave a whole lot to write about.

There is a similar law regulating the audiovisual media, and Article 15 of the PPL stipulates that no book may be published without the approval of the state. Finally, it is illegal for employers to hire journalists who are not members of the state-controlled journalists union, the JPA. (Although many journalists in Jordan do work outside the union.)

It should come as no surprise that all of the above has resulted in a high degree of self-censorship in the Jordanian media. A 2005 survey by the Jordanian Higher Media Council (HMC) found that the country’s national newspapers give far more attention to regional and international news than to local news. Ninety percent of the local news comes from the national press agency Petra that, like most of Jordan’s newspapers, also belongs to the state.

Recently, a number of English-language magazines have entered the Jordanian media landscape. None of them venture into politics. They focus on women, young people and the business community. Getting a permit to start a magazine like that is not especially hard in Jordan, provided one can fork down the $45,000 to $75,000.

But getting the permit is only half the battle, as one of Jordan’s youth magazines found out when it ran a story about the forgotten Palestinian refugee camp in the no-man’s land between Jordan and Iraq. Because the magazine was operating under a “youth” permit, the story focused on a young volunteer working in the camp.

“After the story ran, we got a call from the authorities reminding us that a political story like that was not permitted”, says an editor of the magazine, who didn’t want to be named. “The golden rule is: three warnings and you’re out of business.”

It should come as no big surprise then that, according to a recent study by the Jordanian University, 75 percent of Jordanians say they are afraid to criticize their government, and 79 percent wouldn’t dare taking part in a peaceful political protest. That last one doesn’t pose much of an inconvenience, however, since political protests are in any case forbidden in Jordan.