The authorities once again blew hot and cold towards the media in 2003. The toughest laws affecting it were repealed but the written and broadcast media remained under tight government control.
Jordan called in 2003 for a peaceful solution of the dispute between its main ally, the United States, and its big neighbour, Iraq, and officially refused to serve as a US support base. A large number of international media waited in Jordan for several weeks before and during the Iraq war for a flood of Iraqi refugees.
Much-delayed parliamentary elections were held in June to replace the parliament dissolved in 2001 and voters mostly chose pro-monarchy candidates, though Islamists won some seats for the first time in six years.
King Abdallah II appointed a close aide, Faisal al-Fayez, as prime minister in late October to replace Ali Abu Ragheb (who had been accused of nepotism and corruption) and to bring a "new look" to the government and speed up modernisation. In the new and smaller cabinet of younger ministers, the prime minister took over the information portfolio in a bid to appease public anger at curbs on civil liberties for supposed security reasons.
The year was a mixture of setbacks and bright spots for press freedom. Information minister Mohammad Adwan announced on 18 March that the local offices of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera could reopen, ending a diplomatic spat of more than a year with Qatar, where the station is based. Qatar’s ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, at the same time pardoned Jordanian journalist Firas al-Majali, who worked for the state-run Qatar TV and had been sentenced to death in the emirate for alleged spying.
Regional events and strategic alliances heavily influenced Jordan’s policies at home and the government made great efforts to maintain its reputation. Behind a façade of democracy, the authorities were quick to see the media as a threat. As a result, its coverage of the Iraq war was very cautious. The government controls all radio and TV stations and most major newspapers and sets the tone for the main dailies (Al-Ra’i, Jordan Times and Al-Dustour).
But in late April the government repealed a controversial amendment to article 150 of the criminal code that had sharply reduced the list of topics the media was allowed to mention, made it easier to shut down newspapers and required prison terms of between one and three years for journalists who harmed the image of the king and queen or incited people to commit crimes, go on strike or take part in "illegal" gatherings. The amendment was passed in October 2001 in the wake of the 11 September attacks in the United States.
Three journalists imprisoned
State security court prosecutor Mahmud Obeidat ordered the seizure on 16 January 2003 of all copies in circulation of the weekly Al-Hilal and the arrest of three of its journalists because of an article allegedly "undermining the values of Islam." Editor Nasser Qamash, senior assistant editor Roman Haddad and Muhanad Mbeidin, the author of the piece, which was considered disrespectful to the family of the Prophet Mohammed and undermining the government’s reputation, were arrested and held for two weeks "for purposes of the investigation."
The offending article, which appeared on 14 January, was headed "Aisha in the Prophet’s home" and alluded to the Mohammed’s sex life, though did not say anything not already known. Aisha was his favourite wife. A week after the journalists were arrested, theologians close to the Islamist opposition Islamic Action Front issued a fatwa condemning them as "infidels" and fit to "burn in hell."
The three journalists were jailed on 17 February by the state security court (a military body whose sentences cannot be appealed) to between two and six months imprisonment for defaming and undermining Islam and the reputation of the state. They were convicted under article 150 of the criminal code which had been toughened after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States.
Author Mbeidin got six months, Haddad two and Qamash three. The military judge suspended the paper for two months dating from 16 January, the day it was ordered seized. Haddad and Qamash had their sentences commuted on 19 February and were freed after paying respectively 60 and 120 dinars (90 and 180 euros). Mbeidin remained in Jweideh prison and was not freed until May.
Three journalists arrested
Juan Castro, Rubén Vivero and Cristian Sedam, journalists with the "Kaos en la Ciudad" (Chaos in the City) programme on the Argentine TV station Canal 13, were arrested and held for six hours on 1 March 2003 during which they were questioned and their equipment confiscated for filming military bases without official permission.
Harassment and obstruction
About 500 foreign journalists were held back by police roadblocks near Rweished, about 40 km from the Iraqi border, in late March 2003. Journalists were only occasionally allowed into Iraq from 21 March, as the US-British invasion of Iraq began. The border area, where camps had been set up to receive Iraqi refugees, was declared a closed area. Many journalists thought this was because US authorities wanted to conceal the presence of US Special Forces troops operating from Jordanian territory. They noted intense helicopter and other US military air activity there. A CNN crew who filmed a plane landing were escorted back to Amman on 23 March by special police and their film confiscated.
Jordanian officials banned many journalists from entering Iraq at the eastern border crossing at Karameh for several days from 10 April unless they had Iraqi visas. Police did not explain the ban, except to note that the road to Baghdad was "extremely dangerous."
The independent weekly Al-Wehda was banned from printing on 24 September by state security court prosecutor Mahmud Obeidat, even though prior censorship in the country had been officially abolished. Previous issues of the paper had been partly censored, but this time the authorities apparently found out what was in the paper when it was at the printers and acted to stop appearance of an article about torture in Jordan since 1993.
A cartoon in the paper showing new prime minister Faisal al-Fayez was censored on 6 November before publication. Journalist Mowafak Mahadin said it had been spotted at the printers and the authorities had forced the paper to replace it with a milder one about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The offending cartoon showed Fayez and some of his cabinet, noting the countries (including the US and Britain) where they had studied, along with US Gen. John Abizaid, who had studied in Jordan. The caption was "Each to his own culture." Mahadin, who writes regularly for the daily Al-Arab Al-Yum, also said three of his editorials had been partly censored for being too critical of the government.