Saturday, January 20, 2018

20-Jan-18: Shutting down media critics in Jordan isn't quite the challenge it might seem to be

As a large delegation of American officials headed by Vice President Mike Pence makes its way in the coming hours to Jordan, we're thinking about what goes on over there. What do people think in Jordan? How free they are to express themselves? And why isn't this talked about more?

They're important questions at multiple levels. Jordan is for all practical purposes the largest and most important of the three Palestinian Arab entities. The other two of course are the almost-state of Palestine, the one run by the Mahmoud Abbas clique from Ramallah; and the unspeakably monstrous Hamas polity operating mainly, but not only, from the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Arabs are a majority of Jordan's population but it remains a challenge to get firm data and meaningful definitions. (For some valuable background, see this 2014 Gatestone Institute post by Khaled Abu Toameh: "Why Jordan Doesn't Want More Palestinians".)

It's hard to know what Jordanians think or believe because they have one of the most tightly controlled news reporting industries in the world. And by control we mean the power exercised by the king and those who are with him.

Here's a minor but fresh instance from a non-Jordanian source:
Jordan arrests two journalists after complaint by finance minister | Critics say arrests are assault on free speech and call for release of journalists
Middle East Eye | Wednesday 17 January 2018
Free speech advocates are calling for the release of two Jordanian journalists who were arrested on Tuesday over a complaint by the country’s finance minister after a report accused him of tax evasion. Omar Malhas, the minister, said the report by Shadi al-Zinati and Omar al-Mahrama on news website Jfranews was false. Now they face charges of violating the country’s Press and Publication Law and Cybercrime Law... Khaled Qudah, the chair of JPA’s Freedoms Committee [JPA is the Jordan Press Association] said the cybercrime law shackled journalists. “JPA is working diligently to release Zinaty and Mahrama because of our belief that these arrests strike at the heart of freedom of expression in Jordan,” Qudah was quoted as saying by Jordanian newspaper Alghad. He wondered why the two journalists were in jail while the case was pending.
It goes on to quote a member of parliament:
Jordanian MP Saddah Alhabashneh said the arrests "disgraced" freedom of expression in Jordan. He accused the government of "muffling" criticism after its latest economic decisions that aim to impoverish Jordanians, Jfranews reported...
Freedom of expression in Jordan has a nice ring to it. But it's an oxymoron. In its Freedom of the Press 2017 report, Freedom House calls Jordan's media "not free" with a score of 68 out of 100. That might sound reasonable - till you learn that the Freedom House scale gives a country 0 points if its media are completely free and 100 if they are completely unfree.

Out of 199 countries evaluated by Freedom House, Jordan is ranked at position number 155. Those below it on the list include Qatar, Central African Republic, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Russia,  Kazakhstan, North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Yesterday's Jordan Times, a major media voice that appears to be close to the monarchy and reflects its view of things, gives us Chapter Two of the saga.
Two journalists arrested over defamatory tax evasion claims released on bail
Rana Husseini | Jordan Times | January 18, 2018 | AMMAN — The Amman prosecutor on Thursday decided to release on bail two journalists arrested for allegedly publishing tax evasion accusations against the Finance minister earlier this year... Editor-in-chief of Jafra news website Omar Maharmeh, who is also a board member of the Jordan Press Association (JPA) and reporter Shadi Zaynati were ordered detained at Marka Prison by Amman Prosecutor Abdullah Abul Ghanam on Tuesday. Minister of Finance Omar Malhas had filed a complaint against the two journalists... On January 9, the Income and Sales Tax Department (ISTD) Director General Bashar Nasser refuted as “inaccurate” the Jafra report accusing Malhas of tax evasion during his service at the HBTF.... Nasser explained that, according to Article 12 of the Income Tax Law [followed by lengthy technical explanation of Jordan's tax law]...  “This proves the inaccuracy of the news reported by several websites,” he concluded.
In truth, we have no idea, and don't much care, if the Finance Minister of Jordan cheated on tax payments. But the idea that investigative reporters can be thrown into jail for saying he did essentially removes the mask from a totalitarian regime that - before most other things - looks after its insiders and their interests.

Image Source
They're are out on bail now, but the Jordan Times says the two hapless journalists are going to stand trial "next week as the prosecutor has already heard several witnesses and experts in the case". Next week? That's revealing. Justice might not be perfect over there. But it moves remarkably fast - when that's what the insiders want.

(The case of our daughter's murderer, the Jordanian FBI fugitive Ahlam Tamimi, came before Jordan's highest appeals court this past March a mere handful of days after the US announced last March that it wanted her extradited under the 1995 Jordan/Israel Treaty. The court pushed off the American request on grounds that expert non-Jordanian legal observers say are "without basis".)

Now notice how the Jordan Times gives its readers no sense at all of the outrage these arrests caused among civil libertarians, international journalist's rights groups and people who worry about the right to express yourself freely and other fundamental human rights.

People living outside Jordan know that claims of the kind made against that Jordanian politician are daily fare in the civilized world and its media. But in Jordan, there's no editorial comment about how they were thrown into prison even before charges were heard before any court. These are sanctions of the kind a state might use when violence has been done or alleged. But tax evasion?

There's a clear message here for any Jordanian thinking of going public with revelations that might affect Jordan's most powerful people. The affair leaves you wondering how anyone expects well-informed but dissenting Jordanian viewpoints to ever be heard on issues larger than government ministers avoiding taxes - allegedly.

Jordan is home to what's regarded as the most ambitious and interesting experiment in professional training for journalists in the Arabic-speaking world: the Jordan Media Institute. We have very negative views about the values on which it is based and have written about them. Not the values it claims to hold - those seem fine and are sorely needed. But those which the world actually gets to see - which are two very different things. 

We don't know if JMI has said or done anything on behalf of this week's two arrested reporters. But since its founder and prime mover, Princess Rym Ali, is a sister-in-law of the king, we're not wildly hopeful of it taking courageous stands for freedom of the press. (Though you never know.)

If you're not already familiar with Jordan Media Institute (and especially if you're a member of Vice President Pence's entourage making its way to Jordan as we write these words), here's a short list of some posts we blogged about it - and by extension about the unique interplay of extreme violence and professional aspiration that we think the school represents:
We wrote these right after discovering that the students at this prestigious institution had declared Ahlam Tamimi, the Hamas agent who killed our daughter Malki ["17-Nov-11: A monster walks the streets and she has many accomplices"], masterminded the Sbarro massacre in 2001 and now a free citizen of Jordan ["03-Dec-17: Understanding Jordan's king and his "holistic" approach to terror"], as their role-model. The details are in the posts above. What happened at the Jordan Media Institute and the scandalous way it was hushed up ought to be factored into people's thinking when they wonder about the state of democracy, human rights and terrorism in the Arab world - and even (especially) in the parts of it that people think are moderate.

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