Feb 14 2003

Protect Independent Minded Jordanian Journalists

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Media Activism

Naser Qamash, Roman Haddad and Muhanad Mbideen have been held in the Jewedeh prison south west of Amman since January 17th. They are held in jail pending a state security trial looking into the government’s case against their newspaper Al Hellal. The weekly paper published an article dealing with the personal life of the Prophet Muhammad. Although the article is mostly a collection of legally published materials, including books available in Jordanian prisons, the government feels that the article touches on religious sensitivities. But while Jordanian law provides for a civilian prosecution of journalists for inflaming religious sensitivities, the government has chosen to use the state security courts for this case. Using the temporary law 150, which criminalizes journalistic-related crimes, the state prosecutor is holding the three journalists in a detention center pending the outcome of their case.

The chairman of the board of the newspaper, Ahmad Salameh, has been released on bail because the newspaper is considered a corporate entity and therefore no individual can be held liable for the actions of the paper.

I have no idea whether the article that was published in Al Hellal has any serious negative implications on the public. But I do have a problem with the concept of criminalizing journalistic behavior. True journalists have to be held responsible for what they write and what they publish, but a remedy must be found that avoids putting decent journalists in the same detention center as accused rapists and killers.

What makes the continued imprisonment of these three journalists more difficult to fathom is the fact that it has a number of political connotations. On at least two different issues there is a smell of politics in this case.

First, it has been known for some time that key governmental officials have not been happy with what Al Hella newspaper has been writing.

Secondly, it is clear that the government eyeing elections in the coming months is careful not to widen the rift between it and Islamists who are seen as the largest and most organized opposition party in Jordan.

Jordanian press law expert Yehiya Shuqqeir assured me this week that if this case was being tried solely on its legal merits the three journalists would be found innocent. At best their case would be tried in a civil court and the charge would not have a criminal nature to it. As it, state security courts, which are appointed by the government, have a tendency to reflect government wishes.

Shuqqeir, who is the head of the freedoms committee in the Jordanian Press Association, is worried that the three journalists might be spending a long time in prison. He says that as it stands now, if found guilty (which is very likely) the three will face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of six months.

The curious thing about this particular case is that it has failed to raise much international opposition. Because of the sensitivity of the issue involved, many international press freedoms organizations are afraid of getting involved so as not to make the journalists’ case any worse.

The three journalists, two Muslims and a Christian spent this Eid al Adha holiday in a cold prison while the rest of us enjoyed the holidays in our homes and in Jordan’s beautiful resorts. At the very least, these journalists should be allowed to be free pending the result of their trial. They certainly don’t possess a flight risk, nor do they possess a threat to the public good. On the contrary their continue incardination hurts the public good of Jordan which is trying so hard to become an active member in the club of world countries that respect human and civil rights among them the 19th article of the Universal Charter of Human Rights which Jordan is a signatory to.

Jordan’s record on individual freedoms has been rather good. King Abdullah II has made important efforts to guarantee the rights of all Jordanians, especially those who are weak and under represented. The status of Jordanian women and children and the royal family’s valiant efforts to defend their rights have become the source of inspiration to people around the world. The time has come for His Majesty the King, to protect another weak sector of Jordanian society- independent minded journalists.

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