Freedom of the Press in Jordan: Regulatory Amendments or Restrictions to Online Speech?

Journalism in Jordan is suffering some severe blows as a result of laws and legislations that are inherently restrictive to the freedom of the media and the practice of the profession. Many regulations, which have been passed in violation of the Jordanian Constitution, currently serve as a legal umbrella for authorities to control independent websites in general, and journalists in particular.

Whoever follows up on legislations targeting journalism in Jordan will notice a concerning State pattern. The Press and Publication law has been amended several times, which led to the censorship of news websites after each amendment, under the pretext that these had failed to secure a license from the General Administration of Press and Publication. Likewise, the Cybercrime Law is often used as a legal justification to arrest and detain journalists, increasing website license fees, and requesting a license for the “Live” broadcast feature on social media.

In this regard, journalists and citizens may wonder about the role of the “Jordanian Press Association” (JPA), represented by the new board, in countering these challenges and legislative amendments which have imposed further restrictions on freedom and a decline in Jordan’s position on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, coming in the 128th place out of 180 countries around the world, according to a report by “Reporters without Borders”.

Journalism Legislations

According to the Media Commission’s website, the Kingdom’s regulatory authority for journalism, the latter is governed by a set of domestic laws and legislations, codes of conduct, and international conventions and treaties ratified by Jordan.

However, in an interview with SMEX, JPA member Khaled Al-Qudah stated that “there is legislative defects amounting to chaos in the legislation system,” noting that “legal provisions on criminalization and violations exceed by far those that protect the rights enshrined in the Constitution, not to mention that some of them even directly contradict the essence of the law.” For instance, although Jordan was one of the first Arab countries to pass an “Access to Information Law,” the law “contains several exceptions that pose limitations on the legal text, violate international standards, and bring legitimacy to information confidentiality instead of achieving the desired accessibility,” according to Al-Qudah.

In relation to journalists’ arrests, Al-Qudah noted that “the Press and Publication law stipulates that journalists shall not be denied the right to perform their journalistic work without intervention or arrest for it.” He adds that “establishing an offence only makes the arrest of journalists legal, under ambiguous texts, particularly in relation to freedom of expression, where selectivity in the legal reference is used to criminalize an act.”

As such, a freedom of expression case can fall under the “Press and Publication Law,” whereby the Journalist will be tried without arrest and will only incur fines. Otherwise, the case would be referred to the State Security Court where the journalist is arrested and detained, as was the case of journalist Jamal Haddad, who was arrested and referred to the State Security Court on a freedom of expression case.

The Jordanian media also faces other forms of pressure. For instance, according to Al-Qudah, “the government occasionally imposes a single official narrative on all news websites, denying news followers access to any alternative. This lack of access to information offers a breeding ground for rumors. And while the law prosecutes the spread of rumors, it fails to look into those responsible for withholding information, thus sparking the rumor.”

That was the case when Arab and international media rushed to cover the “Royal Turmoil” case through unofficial leaks. At the same time, Jordanian websites only published the concise official narrative, in the lack of any other alternatives. A few days later, a decision to ban any publications on the case was issued, granting international media privileges in covering the event.

Constant Attempts to “Suffocate” the Media

“Executive authorities have adopted a systematic approach in passing more severe laws that pose additional limitations,” according to Al-Qudah, as was recently the case of the Media Commission, one of the Jordanian government’s instruments of power. The Media Commission was the subject of legal controversy after submitting a draft of amendments to journalism laws regulating the work of websites, publishing and marketing houses, periodicals, etc. Thankfully, this law was never implemented. The amendments suggest raising the renewal fees of news websites’ licenses from 50 Dinars (USD 70) to 500 Dinars (USD 700). They also stipulate a 2500 Dinar fee (USD 3500) for online radio/TV broadcasting. The pretext was that amendments were “based on several complaints filed by art production houses and radio-station owners against several websites who had started broadcasting and offering content on their platform, thus harming the business of licensed institutions,” according to the Media Commission Manager Tareq Abu Al-Ragheb.

The proposed amendments caused strong uproar amongst journalists. In this context, the National Center for Human Rights called on the Government to clarify the due causes  and the legal need for the suggested amendments. A series of protests ensued, triggered by a demonstration in front of the Jordanian Press Association, followed by a campaign on social media, which culminated in meetings with representatives from the JPA and the government, prompting the latter to withdraw the amended laws while continuing to apply existing provisions.

Al-Qudah believes that appropriate governance can be secured through “the adoption of regulations, instructions, and incentives that contribute to the growth and stability of small and medium media enterprises and supporting them in providing original media content.” He adds that “the imposed restrictions have gone in the direction of a fee increase, turning media institutions into capitalist corporations. As such, only the rich will be legally able to establish websites or media institutions, causing professional websites and journalists to drop out from the media scene, due to their lack of financial capacity to cover fees, particularly in light of the dire economic situation in Jordan.”

In the same context, lawyer Nour Al-Imam told SMEX that the “current Penal Code and the Cybercrime Law stipulate binding sanctions against electronic websites and newspapers in the event of a violation or breach of the law. Al-Imam denounces the sanctions and suggests refraining from imposing more regulations to prevent practitioners from falling into the trap of professional and ethical violations. She considers any restriction of freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression and the freedom of journalism, a blatant violation of Article 128 of the Jordanian Constitution, which prohibits the promulgation of laws and regulations that undermine the freedoms and rights consecrated therein.

This legal conundrum is not the first of its kind in the journalistic scene. The Media Commission had previously banned 45 news websites last year under the pretext of “expired licenses.” A few years before, 291 local news websites were banned for “failing to secure a license from the General Administration of Press and Publication” within the grace period granted to the website owners to settle their legal affairs, as part of the implementation of the Press and Publication Law.

Can legal amendments violate the legal texts in effect?

According to Qudah, “the Jordanian Constitution is at the top of the legislative pyramid. All amended regulations must comply, in form and content, with the text of the Constitution and Laws passed in Parliament.” He believes that “legislative authorities must strive to limit the passing of additional restrictive laws or sanctions which confuse the media sector. They must also monitor the promulgation of regulations to make sure they do not contradict the laws adopted in Parliament.”

Additionally, Al-Imam believes that some regulations contain constitutional and legal violations, and breach international conventions and treaties. For instance, the most recent amendments contradict the Press and Publication Law, as well as the Audiovisual Media Law, in the absence of any provisions that allow imposing financial fees or requesting an annual renewal of website licenses.”

On another note, in relation to the repeated attempts to ban “live” broadcasting on social media,  Al-Imam believes it is an “infringement on the civil and political rights of citizens,” adding that social media broadcasting cannot be controlled, especially that the internet is a free right and a tool allowing people to exercise freedom of expression and acquire information in our age. Should fees be imposed on online broadcasting, Jordan would be the first country to impose such restriction.”

According to the Audiovisual Media Law, the “Media Commission is a legal persona that is financially and administratively independent from the state. However, the Commission is financially and administratively affiliated to the Ministry of Information, in violation of the principle of autonomy, according to the “Country Status Report” published by the Jordanian Economic and Social Council, which denies the independence of the Media Commission.

There have been repeated attempts at “imposing unjustified restrictions on the media, particularly against websites considered independent from the government, contrary to official newspapers,” according to Al-Imam, and it seems that the next round of restrictions is closer than expected.

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Sawsan Abo Alsondos

Sawsan Abu Al-Sondos is a freelance journalist and content writer (From Beirut). She holds a Masters degree in journalism and modern media from the Jordan Media Institute. She is a social and educational researcher interested in rights and freedoms.