While Jordan’s 2011 protests did not get the global attention neighboring Arab Spring revolts received, they were significant for the Hashemite Kingdom. King Abdullah II promised sky-high freedoms to his people. Some changes did take place – in response to the persistent protests, the government passed minor reforms that included a loosening of state control over the media. These small victories on freedom of expression have, however, been reversed over recent years, as government interference in the media has increased.
Article 15 of the Jordanian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to “freely express his views” as long as “he does not overstep the bounds of the law.” In Jordan, the bounds of the law are very tight. There are seven major legislative limits on free expression in the country, including those that undermine the regime, insult the king or the royal family, or disturb diplomatic relations. Those who violate these laws are often tried by the state security court – a military tribunal overseeing cases related to terrorism and national security.
These laws have regularly led to the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of journalists. In the summer of 2015, journalist Jamal Ayub was arrested for “jeopardizing the country’s relations with a neighboring state,” according to Al Jazeera, after writing an article critical of the Saudi-led attack on Yemen.
Another journalist, Nidal Salameh, was arrested in August 2014 for allegedly having connections to Hamas. During his three-week detention, officials focused not on these so-called relations, but rather on Salameh’s coverage of Israel’s then ongoing assault on Gaza. Last year, police arrested writer Nahed Hattar for allegedly insulting religion after he shared a cartoon on Facebook. Hattar was assassinated on September 25, 2015 as he entered the courthouse to face those charges.
These incidents are part of widespread government interference with the media. In 2014, Jordan committed 153 violations against members of the media and journalists, according to a report by the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ). These violations include bans on reporting, as well as the arrest and arbitrary detention of journalists.
Predictably, this assault on press freedom has impacted the way journalists operate. The CDFJ report found that 95% of journalists engage in self-censorship. 93% of respondents said they avoid discussing the armed forces, while 90% said they were afraid to criticize the king, royal court, and royal family.
The Jordanian government also censors media more directly. It regularly introduces gag orders that impede coverage of certain issues. Between 2014 and 2016, there were fifteen such orders, including one that banned coverage of Nahed Hattar’s arrest. These laws have been used to target opposition politicians and silence activists. In 2015, the state security court sentenced a leader of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood to eighteen months in prison for criticizing the United Arab Emirates on Facebook.
Just last week, the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate began a new crackdown on the opposition, arresting around twenty reform activists after a meeting aimed at tackling the country’s rampant corruption. The detained activists were primarily military veterans and former government personnel. Two days later, the state security court charged eight of these individuals with “insulting the King” and “incitement to spread chaos to undermine the political regime of Jordan using social media,” according to Al Jazeera. In addition, ten teachers were arrested for criticizing the government on social media.
Growing restrictions on journalists and free expression in Jordan stand in opposition to King Abdullah II’s promises to his people and carefully constructed image as a reformer and modernizer. True reform would mean lifting these restrictions and delivering on greater freedom for the people of Jordan.