The government, which has made slow but important progress in guaranteeing media freedoms, took a turn backwards.
The attorney general ordered on October 20 the detention of Osama Al Ramini, a member of the journalist syndicate and the owner of a licensed news website.
The act violates the country’s commitments.
Detaining journalists comes as a result of a loophole in the electronic crimes law.
The prime minister had earlier asked a governmental advisory body for the interpretation of Clause 11 of the recently amended electronic crimes law.
The Office of Interpretation, headed by Judge Hisham Al Tal, the president of the Judicial Council, responded on October 19 that the clause does allow the detention of a person accused of tort and slander on any electronic site; at the same time, the interpretation overrode clear clauses in the amended Press and Publications Law that forbid the detention of journalists.
The following day, the government ordered Ramini’s detention, causing an uproar among journalists, the syndicate and NGOs defending media.
The decision to detain a journalist is yet another blow to Jordan’s thriving electronic media, which has been growing steadily over years despite the continuous restrictions.
The same 2012 amended Press and Publications Law that guaranteed immunity to journalists from arrest for their views also stipulated that electronic news websites must be licensed just like the newspapers.
Nearly 300 unlicensed websites were blocked in June 2013 because of their violation of the controversial law.
The blocking of websites brought criticism of Jordan from relevant media rights groups locally and internationally. Local protests and an attempt to challenge the law in courts failed.
Publishers of electronic news sites that had complained about the new licensing scheme were told that by working for a licensed electronic publication, journalists and publishers will be protected from detention because they would automatically fall under the Press and Publications Law, which stipulates civil penalties but no detentions.
By being targeted for detention on accusations of slander, electronic journalists have been punished twice.
Having to adhere to the rigorous obligations of being licensed like a newspaper, including hiring an editor who is a four-year veteran member of the syndicate, electronic journalists are being negatively discriminated against by being detained before a judge can decide whether what they publish is slander or not.
The government decision to go after electronic journalists reflects a mentality that thinks it can deter all electronic media outlets by detaining journalists working for them.
This act is contrary to international commitments and it once again could break the trust between the government and the public.
When governments break their sacred promise to honour the right of the public to know and detain accredited journalists working for licensed news sites, they are attempting to muzzle the fourth estate.
The chilling effect of such detentions prevents professional journalists from doing their job, as they see that they are not protected even if they follow all the rules and regulations.
Jordan’s media scene was reviewed thoroughly this year by a UNESCO-appointed team that applied, for the review, the international organisations media index.
Some of the positive results highlighted by the report will most certainly be erased by the government decision to go after journalists in order to protect government officials or business people in bed with the government.
It is high time that the government understands that in the second decade of the 21st century, putting a journalist in prison is unacceptable and counterproductive.
Civil society and press freedom advocates also have a much more challenging goal now.
They can no longer accept pledges and guarantees of immunity from imprisonment in one law while other laws allow it.
It is now crucially important to ensure that proactive legislation clearly and unambiguously states that no journalist can be detained or arrested because of his/her views.
Such guarantee must clearly supersede the various existing laws that still allow for detaining journalists under a variety of justifications.