Jordan's news websites running for legal cover



 
Despite being in their infancy, Jordanian news websites such as Khaberni.com are facing legal challenges from government officials and the Jordan elite angered at their content. They join other Jordanian media outlets also facing legal pressures in what is becoming an increasingly restricted media environment. MENASSAT’s Oula Farawati investigates.
 
By OULA FARAWATI
 
KHABERNIdotCOMscreenshot
Khaberni.com - one of the 20 plus news websites facing legal challenges in Jordan for the content being published. © Khaberni.com

AMMAN, March 11, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Informed judicial sources confirmed to MENASSAT that around 20 legal cases have been filed against Jordan-based news websites this year, with Jordan’s Lower House of Parliament moving last week to restrict Khaberni.com, a year old news website.

“They want to muzzle journalists. The authority that should protect us now wants to silence our voices,” Ghaith Al Adaileh, chief editor of Khaberni told MENASSAT.

Adaileh and Khaberni’s team were busy preparing news items when they got the news from the government, and have since been responding to a flood of comments from journalists and citizens voicing their concerns and lodging their support for the site.

Asking for trouble?

Khaberni’s trouble came after publishing a recent opinion article by prominent columnist Khaled Mahadin, in which the writer criticized the privileges granted to members of the Jordan’s Lower House of Parliament.

His “Mishan Allah ya Abdallah” (for God’s Sake Abdullah) article directly asked the King to dissolve the House for failing to fully carry out its duties.

The site on Wednesday, March 4 quoted parliamentary sources as saying that the House was contemplating a lawsuit against Khaberni and Mahadin.

The House’s secretary general Fayez Shawabkeh said a memo was sent to the Attorney General to determine if the House could sue the writer and the site for publishing the article – which a House committee deemed “demeaning for the lawmakers.”

“This is the first law suit against us. It is only a means for MPs to retaliate at us for publishing many stories criticizing all the privileges they have been lobbying for, starting with Hajj visas, car tax exemptions, scholarships and ending with them asking for double their salaries,” Mahadin said.

In the end, the Attorney General decided to go ahead with the case against Mahadin and Khaberni for “slandering” the House and its deputies.

Nidal Mansour, President of the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists said, "I hoped the Lawmakers would accept the media criticism especially in light of the ongoing debate about the House’s performance.”

The CDFJ according to Mansour is helping websites in defending themselves (against) the lawsuits leveled against them. The Center’s Legal support Unit  (MILAD) he said is now dealing with around 40 law cases against journalists from different media outlets, including websites.

The unit works in two directions: Raising journalists’ awareness of their rights and defending them in courts, Mansour said, adding that journalists’ awareness of their rights was “limited” and that journalists themselves have become more cautious as they work in “landmine-infested territories.”

A touchy subject

Little news has been disclosed about lawsuits leveled against other websites. Ammonnews.net announced some good news for itself last week when a lawsuit brought against the site by Ahmad Salameh former Al-Hilal weekly publisher was ruled “irresponsible.”

Ammonnews.net had published a story analyzing why the weekly had closed and was sued by Salameh for public defamation.

Salameh also sued Runnews.com for publishing a similar story last year. A Jordanian Appeals Court upheld a lower court ruling that acquitted the Runnews.com - setting a legal precedent confirming the existing Press and Publication Laws apply to print outlets and not Internet outlets.

The decision, according to the CEFJ's Mansour was “very promising” and actually confirmed a legal note prepared by MILAD, which said it was “unconstitutional” to apply the Press and Publication Law to news websites.

He said the websites, which are currently being sued are being sued according to these old Penal Code(s).

In September 2007, the Press and Publication Department (PPD) attempted to regulate online news sites using a previous decision by the Prime Ministry’s Legislation Bureau that said these sites could be monitored by the department because of the inadequacies of the Press and Publication Law.

A Jordanian court overturned the 2007 PPD decision.

“I don’t know what they are happy about?” asked another news website publisher for Sarayanews.com, Hashem Khalidi. “Journalists (online and otherwise) will still be tried according to the old Penal Code (…) which includes articles that jail and fine journalists,” he told MENASSAT.

Accepting criticism

Journalist and blogger Naseem Tarawneh wrote this week that he was amazed at the fact that government officials are not able to accept being told that “they were doing a bad job.”

He cited the lawsuit against Khaled Mahadin and Khaberni.com as “another example of how media, even online media, is still unsafe and unsure in Jordan.”

“Those in government have yet to understand the meaning of “slander”. In fact, I admit, I don’t understand what the word means anymore. I understand its extremes, such as, for instance, charging that a public official is corrupt with no evidence of whether it is slanderous. But to say that a public official is doing a bad job? Is this wrong?” he asked.

“We should not be happy about the constrained freedoms. I always get threats of being sued... on daily basis,” adds Khalidi.

He and many of Jordan’s new media publishers say they only know government pressure to contain free speech.

One news website journalist who preferred not to be named told MENASSAT, “One day they will find a way to constrain all of our freedoms. When they do that, we can kiss this new freedom goodbye.”