Battle to expose corruption in Jordan

The Jordanian government appears to have backed down following an outcry over a proposed law that would discourage journalists from exposing corruption.

On Thursday, the lower house of parliament approved the draft law which is meant to combat corruption but also imposes fines of 30,000-60,000 dinars ($42,000-$85,000) on "every person or party that publicly or explicitly attaches charges of corruption to others without solid facts with the purpose of extortion, slander or defamation and character assassination".

The heavy penalties, coupled without doubts about the precise meaning of "solid facts" and "character assassination", have been widely interpreted as an attempt to shield government officials from public scrutiny. 

Last Wednesday, the board of the Jordanian Press Association (JPA) threatened mass resignation if the bill became law and on Friday about 4,000 people demonstrated in Amman, some of them chanting: "A government that is protecting corruption cannot be trusted, and a parliament of corruption does not represent the people."

Tareq Momani, president of the JPA, told the Jordan Times the government had "practised extreme pressure" on members of parliament to approve the bill (which they did by 56 votes to 40).

"This act comes in absolute contradiction with the reform efforts called for by the king," he said. "The media is an important player in exposing fraud, embezzlement and other corruption cases. Now, under the threat of this huge fine the media will not be able to tackle such issues."

The Jordanian Bar Association also condemned the proposal, saying that "it violates international agreements on human rights as well as the constitution, which is clear about safeguarding freedom of expression".

To become law, the measure would have to be approved by the upper house of parliament – and that now seems unlikely to happen.

On Friday, King Abdullah intervened and suggested that defamation was a matter to be dealt with under Jordan's penal code rather than an anti-corruption law. "Protecting the reputation [of individuals] through more general laws like the Penal Code is more effective than addressing this issue under laws like Anti-Corruption Commission Law," he reportedly told members of parliament.

Last year, four prominent Jordanians were jailed in a $17m bribery case involving the kingdom's only oil refinery. Attempts were made at the time to suppress reporting of the case, and in July this year a journalist was sentenced to 14 days' imprisonment for reporting that one of the convicted men – Khaled Shaheen – had been allowed to flee the country.

Despite Jordan's efforts to present itself to the world as a modern constitutional monarchy, journalists in the kingdom have a difficult time. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists says it has documented several assaults on the press in Jordan since March, including attacks against news bureaus, threats against media staff, assaults on journalists covering demonstrations, and thehacking of news websites. 

In April, it said the government's failure to take decisive action against those who physically assault journalists amounts to tacit endorsement of such attacks.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 October 2011.