Throughout 1997, mounting restrictions on the press in Jordan reflected the government’s broader agenda of masking the widening divide between the state and its domestic political critics. In May, 1997, six months before the parliamentary elections, the cabinet of Prime Minister ‘Abd al-Salam al-Majali promulgated temporary amendments to the 1993 press and publications law that severely restricted the country’s outspoken independent weekly newspapers. The amendments followed nearly four years of legal action against the weeklies, the primary public outlet for independent views about the October 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the country’s economic performance under IMF-led reform, government corruption and human rights abuses. The targeting of the weekly press took place within the context of increasing restrictions on free expression, assembly and association. [1] “King Hussein wants everything to be under his control. The weekly press weakened him,” said one publisher. [2]

On January 26, 1998, the High Court of Justice ruled that the temporary amendments were unconstitutional because the provisions were enacted while Parliament was not in session, a move allowed only when the country faces an emergency situation. Although the decision will permit 12 suspended weeklies to resume publication, the possibility looms that the government will press parliament to pass similar amendments in the coming year.

The May amendments came at a time when political and economic pressures made the state feel particularly vulnerable. According to Jordanian political scientist Radwan ‘Abdallah, “The policies of the regime are mostly faltering, domestically and in foreign policy, and the king finds them increasingly difficult to defend. He’s growing more insecure, more defensive and less tolerant of attacks by the opposition.” [3] Public frustration has been fueled by worsening economic conditions for most Jordanians. According to a 1997 report by the US Agency for International Development, unemployment and inflation increased between 1995 and 1996, with a 13 percent drop in the standard of living during the same period. [4] Many Jordanians blame this on economic reform and underlying skepticism regarding the peace process, the benefits of which are considered unrealized by most Jordanians. [5] According to one Jordanian political observer, “This government speaks about democracy and free expression, but after the peace with Israel, the situation changed drastically.” [6]

The press law amendments, ratified by royal decree on May 17, 1997, imposed sweeping restrictions on the press, giving the state broad powers to suspend, fine and permanently close newspapers. “We have brought the martial law mentality into law,” said former member of Parliament Layth Shubaylat. [7] The amendments also heightened self-censorship among journalists and editors. “Before the new law we would never talk about the king, but we would criticize the government for its concessions to Israel,” said a representative of one of the weeklies. “Now, we can’t say anything.” [8] Even the partially government-owned dailies were affected. A journalist from the daily al-Dustour said that the paper had withheld some 20 articles and columns he had written about “the retreat of democracy in Jordan.” [9]

The Ministry of Information suspended 13 weeklies as of September 24, 1997 and revoked the licenses of 12 of these two months later. Former parliamentarian Faris Nabulsi observed in October: “I think that the government wanted this law because they didn’t want any opposition. Sure, there were unfavorable things in the press, but this should not make you close down newspapers just before the elections.” [10]

The Red Lines

The lifting of martial law in April 1992 opened the way for the Press and Publications Law of May 1993, allowing private newspaper ownership. Although the law canceled the state’s unlimited powers to censor, suspend or permanently close newspapers, it permitted authorities wide berth to discourage and punish independent journalism. [11] Since the law’s inception, the Ministry of Information has employed the vaguely worded content bans to haul journalists to court for coverage of sensitive topics, such as government corruption, criticism of the peace treaty with Israel and negative reporting about “friendly” states. Journalists are also subject to the penal code, whose provisions mandate lengthy prison sentences and stiff fines. Journalists may be prosecuted for offenses such as “inciting sedition,“ defamation, innuendo or publishing false news. “Let’s call the press and publications law the first line of defense,” said Shubaylat. “If [a joumalist] gets by that, then [the government] can use the penal code…. The journalists are terrified of this.” [12]

According to a report by the London-based Article 19 the state raised 63 cases against newspapers between July 1993 and July 1996 under the press law and penal code; all but five were against weeklies. [13] Al-Bilad, one of the weeklies suspended last September, is currently facing 26 cases, most dating to 1993. [14] Although the popular weekly al-Shihan avoided closure, it faced 29 cases as of September 1996. [15]

In the period leading up to and following the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, the weeklies took the lead in reporting and advocating opposition to the accord and normalization of relations with Israel. The Ministry of Information responded by pressuring the weeklies. On August 2, 1994, Nidal Mansour, then editor-in-chief of al-Bilad, was detained for “publishing an article on the activities of parties fighting against normalization with Israel.” [16] Mansour was detained a second time that month for publishing statements by political parties opposed to the peace. [17] Just weeks later, Fahd Rimawi and Hilmi Asmar, editors-in-chief of the weeklies al-Majd and the Islamist al-Sabil, respectively, were questioned by prosecutors about their newspapers’ editorial opposition to peace with Israel. [18]

Throughout 1994, 12 cases were brought against weeklies for coverage of opposition to the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. [19] Eight opposition parties reacted by issuing a letter to Majali on September 25, 1994, condemning the government’s moves to stifle the dissemination of independent views. “Any criticism is considered slander against the government and any word is interpreted as harmful to national unity,” the statement read. “The government position aims at preventing views opposed to normalization of ties with Israel from reaching the people.” [20] Al-Sabil noted: “Not all Jordanians support the government’s policy and its panting after Rabin and Peres, not all Jordanians are happy about upcoming meetings with Rabin and Peres, and not all Jordanians believe the government’s justifications for its rush.” [21]

Criticism of the peace treaty was not the only source of irritation for the state. The Ministry of Information also invoked the press law and penal code against journalists who wrote critically of “friendly” regimes. In 1995, authorities charged Rimawi with defamation under the penal code for publishing “Glubb Pasha Should Leave,” [22] an opinion piece that called for the removal of Bahrain’s British security chief, Ian Henderson. An article published in al-Bilad about capital punishment in Saudi Arabia triggered another suit. “Some of the phony accusations were that the press was slandering other countries and Jordan’s image abroad,” said Tahir ‘Adwan, editor-in-chief of the only fully independent and privately owned daily, al-‘Arab Al-Yawm, launched just after the press law amendments were announced. “This is actually factual reporting, but the government says that it is harming the country’s international relations.” [23]

The desire to restore damaged relations with the Gulf states in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war no doubt played a role. In January 1994, Majali criticized the press for harming improved relations with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait: “The Jordanian media plays a part in not getting this relation back.” [24]

The weeklies did not abandon their critical stance. Following Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995 and King Hussein’s presence at his funeral, commentary in the weeklies infuriated the king. One headline in al-Sabil, “One less murderer” — a reference to statements made by Shimon Peres after the Malta assassination of Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shiqaqi — again provoked the king. [25] “Do not destroy in the name of democracy,” he admonished the press, calling those who threaten national unity “my foe forever.” [26] Shortly thereafter, he asked the parliament to consider a tougher press law. “I believe the law will be sent to [Parliament] soon,” he said in June 1996. “Then, God willing, the media will be in the hands of responsible people who can perform their role in serving the homeland and the nation and in reflecting the true picture o fthis country.” [27] Although a parliamentary committee discussed possible amendments, it took no action.

In 1996, a marked increase in prosecutions and warnings against “irresponsible” journalism set the stage for a clampdown that September. The weekly press came under fire for its tabloid-style coverage and suspect reporting. Headlines such as “Four-Year-Old Child is Married to a Fairy and Practices Sexual Intercourse with Her” and “Parties Start After Midnight and Homosexuals are Known” [28] caused outrage in Parliament, particularly from Islamist deputies and the Jordan Press Association. According to a former government official, the government used such articles to frame press restrictions as a moral issue, a move for which they received some support. [29]

When the government lifted state subsidies on bread and fodder in August 1996, rioting broke out in a number of southern towns and several journalists were arrested for their coverage of the events. Four of these, journalists from al-Bilad, were charged under the penal code with “inciting strife” and “publishing false information.” “They are trying to teach journalists not to touch sensitive issues,” said one editor. [30]

The May 1997 Amendments

The murder of seven Israeli schoolgirls by Jordanian soldier Ahmad Dakamseh in the border town of Baqoura on March 13, 1997, exacerbated tension between the weekly press and the state. The weeklies’ sympathetic coverage of Dakamseh and the public outpouring of support for him both embarrassed and angered the king. Four days after the killings, on March 17, the king adjourned Parliament, clearing the way for the enactment of the press law amendments as “temporary” law in that body’s absence.

Just days before the amendments were announced, two news stories reportedly enraged the king. One charged that he had paid money to the families of the Israeli schoolgirls killed by Dakamseh, and another alleged that the king’s daughter had studied in Israel. On May 14, the king said, “This is enough. We can no longer take it.” [31]

On May 17, with Parliament adjourned, the cabinet promulgated 14 amendments to the 1993 press law, including broad and ambiguous content bans, greater powers to suspend or dose publications, exorbitant fines, [32] and sharply increased capital requirements.

The first casualty was the weekly ‘Abid Rabbuh, Jordan’s only satirical paper, whose lively stories and cartoons often mocked public officials. The paper closed in June after less than a year of publication. “The new law is elastic, and it can be applied to almost any article we publish,” said editor-in-chief Yusuf Ghayshan. [33] The amendments mandated sharp increases in fines, ranging from 15,000 to 25,000 Jordanian dinars [$21,000-$35,000] for violations of the content bans. [34]

In July 1997, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front Party (the Brotherhood’s political arm) and eight secular opposition political parties announced a boycott of the November elections, citing the press law amendments as one of the major reasons. The boycott was also endorsed by each of Jordan’s 13 professional associations in addition to two former prime ministers, illustrating the broad opposition to the amendments. [35]

The second casualty came on September 2, when the court of first instance ruled that al-Bilad had unlawfully published information about the security forces. Based on a Reuters story, the article told of the arrest in Jordan of the husband of a woman who had carried out an armed attack against Israeli soldiers. The paper was fined 15,000 dinars. [36] With four other cases pending, the newspaper faces up to 200,000 dinars [$280,000] in fines. The weekly al-Hadath was charged for publishing a summary of the same article. It was article 24 of the amendments, however, that presented the greatest obstacle for the press. It required daily newspapers to increase their capital base from 50,000 dinars to 600,000 [$70,000 to $840,000], and weeklies from 15,000 dinars to 300,000 [$21,000 to $420,000]. In an interview with the London-based al-Wasat, Majali said, “All that we have done is to raise the level of capital…so that they can meet their [financial] obligations, at least toward their workers who are complaining about their wages [not] being paid.” [37] But most observers agree that the new capital requirements were specifically designed to target the financially shaky weekly newspapers. “If we don’t manage to raise our capital, then we won’t have any other option but to close,“ said Rimawi. [38] Indeed, few weeklies were able to meet the requirement. Thirteen were suspended on September 23 and 24, leaving only four independent weeklies publishing. [39] In November, 12 of the 13 had their licenses revoked; only al-Majd raised the required capital.


On May 20, some 50 journalists and sympathizers staged a peaceful sit-in near the prime minister’s office, carrying banners proclaiming, “No to the assassination of the press.” Police dispersed the protesters, injuring eight people and detaining ten journalists for a nine-hour interrogation.

In May and June, the heads of several professional associations threatened to resign in protest of the amendments, though all backed down. Successive attempts by the 450-member Jordan Press Association to convene an extraordinary session to oppose the amendments failed to meet the required quorum. On why the opposition fizzled, Shubaylat said, “It’s fear. They’re scared to death.” [40] Implicit government threats against the professional associations may have also contributed to the retreat. [41]

King Hussein continued to criticize the press after the passage of the amendments. In a June 8 speech in Irbid, he said, “One reads columnists’ articles cursing America one day, President Clinton on another, Turkey the next day, Netanyahu on a third day and so on, in addition to cursing the state, the government, the performance of the government…all without any objective reasoning…or exerting positive efforts to address these problems.” [42]

“We used to publish the press releases of the leftist opposition parties, but after the amendments we stopped,” one publisher explained. “We refrained from publishing certain cartoons and some information related to the army. Nothing was published about the police. I stopped writing about Jordanian affairs.” [43]

In addition to the content bans, authorities have used indirect means to pressure newspapers. Al-‘Arab Al-Yawm, which has made a name for itself for its reporting on sensitive political issues, provided detailed coverage of the September 1997 assassination attempt of Hamas political leader Khalid Mishal in Amman. The paper’s journalists were summoned by intelligence officers in an apparent attempt to intimidate them. According to editor-in-chief ‘Adwan, “It started with telephone calls. [Deputy Prime Minister] Jawad ‘Anani called and asked that we retract the information we published about the arrest of armed groups” — a reference to a June article about individuals arrested for smuggling arms into Jordan. [44] He said that Minister of State for Information Affairs Samir Mutawa threatened to raise a case against the paper (in retaliation for the article) unless it published a front-page story about the Ministry of Information criticizing the press. “One week later, we were referred to court,” said ‘Adwan. [45] Government ministries also temporarily withdrew advertising in the paper, in one case following a story about falsified voter cards.

‘Adwan insists that his newspaper’s coverage will not be compromised by government pressure, though his paper’s journalists say that ‘Adwan has not crossed certain red lines. “This week the editor-in-chief refused to run three columns,” said Yusuf Ghayshan (formerly of the satirical ‘Abid Rabbuh) two days before the elections. [46] He estimates that 30 to 40 of his columns have been rejected by the paper since June because of politically sensitive content. [47] Shubaylat, who writes a weekly column for the paper, has had three columns rejected and the language of others toned down. In an open letter to the director of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department, he called for the release of Ali Sunayd, a young writer who was arrested in September 1997; no paper would publish the letter. [48]

‘Atif Joulani, editor-in-chief of al-Sabil since June, described telephone calls from Bilal al-Tall, director of the Press and Publications Department of the Ministry of Information, warning that his paper “should be careful.” “Two months ago, we published an article about how a minister had appointed one of his nephews in the ministry…without any mention of his name or the ministry,” Joulani said. “The minister called and said, ‘I am the person who you mean in the article.’ We then published his response.” [49]

Parallel to the assault on the independent press has been the increased banning of foreign newspapers for what authorities have deemed undesirable coverage of Jordanian affairs. Although censorship of foreign publications — the responsibility of the Press and Publications Department of the Ministry of Information — was nominally ended in February 1997 by the Kabariti government, Majali’s government reversed the policy. In the months leading up to elections, numerous foreign newspapers — including the London-based daily al-Hayat — were barred from distribution inside the country. In October 1997 alone, 15 issues of the daily al-Quds al-‘Arabi (London) were seized in the span of 18 days.

Some journalists and political observers in Jordan remain convinced that the government intended to use the amendments to sideline the weekly press in advance of the elections. “They want[ed] to show international opinion that Jordan will have free and fair elections,” one journalist said in late October. “There are already problems with the elections and the falsification of voter cards. The weeklies would have publicized these issues.” [50] A journalist from the daily al-Dustour added: “The government didn’t want the weeklies to support the opposition.” [51]

Whether Jordan’s parliament will put its stamp of approval on a similar press law in 1998 remains uncertain, though journalists are prepared for the worst. As ‘Adwan of al-‘Arab al-Yawm put it, “These people pretend that they are the protectors of the free press, but they are really its executioners.” [52]

Author’s Note: The author would like to thank the Jordanian journalists who made this piece possible. Special thanks to Nidal Mansour and Virginia N. Sherry.


[1] Human Rights Watch, “Clamping Down on Critics: Human Rights Violations in Advance of the Parliamentary Elections,” (New York, October 1997).
[2] Author’s interview. Name and date withheld by request.
[3] Washington Post, November 4, 1997.
[4] USAID Fiscal Year 1998 Congressional Presentation. According to USAlD, unemployment increased to 19 percent in 1996 from 15 percent in 1995. Inflation during that period increased from 4 percent to 8 percent.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Author’s interview, Amman, November 1, 1997. Name withheld by request.
[7] Author’s interview, Amman, November 3, 1997.
[8] Author’s interview. Name withheld by request.
[9] Author’s interview, Amman, October 28, 1997. Name withheld by request.
[10] Comments delivered at “Media and Press Freedom in Jordan,” a seminar sponsored by Article 19, al-Urdunn al-Jadid Research Center and the Arab Media Institute, Amman October 29, 1997.
[11] The amended version of article 40 banned “news, views, opinions, analysis, reports, caricatures, photos or any type of publication” that violates the 1993 law, including bans on the publication of information that “offends the king or the royal family,” “damages national unity,” “forments hatred” or insults the “heads of state of Arab, Islamic or friendly countries.” A new provision prohibited the publication of “false news or rumors that offend the public interests or state departments.”
[12] Author’s interview, Amman, October 3, 1997.
[13] Article 19, “Blaming the Press: Jordan’s Democratization Process in Crisis,” October 1997, pp. 99-104. The report was written by Jordanian journalist Sa’eda Kilani.
[14] Author’s interview. Name withheld by request.
[15] Author’s telephone interview with Jihad Momani, editor-in-chief of al-Shihan, August 27, 1996.
[16] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Attacks on the Press in 1994: A Worldwide Survey,” March 1995, p. 218 and United Press International, November 20, 1997.
[17] “Attacks on the Press in 1994,” p. 218.
[18] Ibid.
[19] “Blaming the Press,” pp. 99-104.
[20] Jordan Times, September 26, 1994.
[21] Al-Sabil, July 19-25, 1994.
[22] “Blaming the Press,” p. 103.
[23] Comments delivered at “Media and Press Freedom in Jordan” seminar, Amman, October 28, 1997.
[24] Reuters, January 10, 1994.
[25] Gemini News Service, November 24, 1995.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Interview with King Hussein, MBC Television, June 7, 1996, as reported by FBIS, June 11, 1996.
[28] “Blaming the Press,” pp. 103-04.
[29] Author’s interview, Amman. Name and date withheld by request.
[30] Author’s telephone interview with Jihad Momani, October 17, 1996.
[31] Amman Radio Jordan Network, May 14, 1997, as reported by FBIS, May 16, 1997.
[32] Newspapers charged with violating articles 40 and 42 (which bans publication of court proceedings prior to final rulings) were subjected to fines that ranged from JD 15,000 to JD 25,000 for each offense — a fourfold increase from the original law.
[33] Jordan Times, June 14, 1997.
[34] The Minister of Information reserved the right to reinstate newspapers after their fines had been paid. Repeat offenders within the span of five years were subjected to a maximum six-month suspension; third-time offenders faced having their licenses revoked.
[35] Human Rights Watch, p. 8.
[36] Jordan Times, September 9, 1997.
[37] Al-Wasat, July 7-13, 1997, as reported by FBIS, July 10, 1997.
[38] The Star, July 3, 1997.
[39] Although not specified in the law, the government, just one week before the August 15 deadline for compliance with the law, required that the sum of registered capital be paid in full and deposited in a bank account. Previously, papers were permitted to register their capital nominally.
[40] Author’s interview, Amman, November 3, 1997.
[41] Human Rights Watch, Jordan: A Death Knell For Free Expression (New York, June 1997), p. 8.
[42] Jordan Times, June 9, 1997.
[43] Author’s interview. Name withheld by request.
[44] Author’s interview, Amman, November 1, 1997. 1996.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Author’s interview, Amman, November 2, 1997.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Sunayd was on trial for violating the dignity of the king, a penal code offense that carries a maximum term of three years. The charge stemmed from an article he wrote and allegedly distributed which criticized a local politician. He was convicted by the State Security Court on December 19, 1997 and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
[49] Author’s interview, Amman, November 3, 1997.
[50] Author’s interview, Amman, October 27, 1997. Name withheld by request.
[51] Author’s interview, Amman, October 28, 1997. Name withheld by request.
[52] Comments delivered at “Media and Press Freedom in Jordan” seminar, Amman, October 28, 1997.

How to cite this article:

Joel Campagna "Press Freedom in Jordan," Middle East Report 206 (Spring 1998).

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