Story by Erin Kelly // Photo by Rob Sansone
AMMAN, Jordan – No fewer than 24 laws have been created in Jordan to make sure journalists steer clear of hot-button issues that are considered key subjects in places that take pride in maintaining a free press.
These restrictions, which dictate not only how the local government is portrayed but also the way other countries can be reported on, were lamented by Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, while speaking this week to a group of Northeastern University students at the regional office in Amman.
“We have 24 laws running our lives as journalists,” Sabbagh said, adding that journalists in Jordan face constant and sometimes menacing government-mandated roadblocks in their struggle to find a balance between recognizing the law and reporting the truth.
What’s known as “the press and publications law” is just one of the many pieces of legislation that encompass an umbrella of restrictions that target and limit every journalist in Jordan.
“The articles of [the press and publication law] ban us from criticizing the Royal Family, they ban us from criticizing the health of friendly and brotherly countries,” Sabbagh said. “They ban us from writing anything that might destabilize the Jordanian currency or economy and penalize us for writing anything that is seen as political strife.”
In addition to the press and publication law, journalists face constraints from penal codes and the State Security Code in Jordan, Sabbagh said. Penal codes grant authorities vast powers to jail and fine journalists and to terminate publications that violate a range of vaguely defined acts. The State Security Court, appointed by the prime minister, is a joint military and civic court that looks into cases that threaten the “security of the state.”
These “elastic laws,” as described by Sabbagh, have caused problems for not only herself throughout her career, but have also impacted chief editors who want to preserve a good relationship with King Abdullah II, the king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Some will refuse, for example, to write anything critical of the king and his court because they hope to gain a future ministry position, she said.
“Most chief editors want to be able to stay friends with the king and be a part of the system,” Sabbagh said. “They don’t want to rock the boat.”
Some journalists are willing to fight against these provisions—but not enough, she said. And journalists who do attempt to defy the Jordanian law can be subjected to harsh censorships, either through word-of-mouth mud-slinging, or an official ban from events, briefings and certain interviews with anyone connected to the government.
Sabbagh, who is friendly and welcoming but also describes herself as tough and aggressive, said she has learned how to protect herself from the authoritarian whip by never publishing a story without three sources. She also offers her political opinion without criticizing specific individuals to avoid violating the press and publication law. Finally, she also avoids directly attacking the king or queen, or the government.
“I never point fingers,” she said. “I maneuver between the red lines…and sometimes, I hit them along the way.”
To help fight these challenges faced by journalists in Jordan, Sabbagh joined ARIJ as executive director. Founded five years ago, ARIJ is an Amman-based, regional media support network that aims to promote the principles of investigative journalism. Through funding by the Danish Parliament, the organization supports, funds and provides journalists with an experienced media coach and lawyer throughout the pitch, investigation and final execution of a story.
Comprised of both Western and Arab journalists ranging in age and experience, ARIJ reporters use the UNESCO-funded ARIJ Training Manual to support and teach truthful reporting. With ARIJ’s help, more than 100 stories have already been published out of numerous areas including Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Bahrain.
Saad Hattar, editor of investigative reporting at ARIJ, said the organization’s reporters have written about the economy, abuse of power, local corruption and the social and cultural affairs of the people.
“We try not to tackle political problems,” Hattar said. “Our job is to make the lives of [Jordanians] easier—and fix the abuse of power.”
For example, ARIJ has published stories about circumcision of young women in Iraq and the recruitment of women by Al Qaeda to function as suicide bombers. Another topic included investigating the flaws in Jordan’s Access to Information law, a piece of legislation comparable to the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S.
While Jordan is admittedly the only country in the Middle East to have a law such as the FOIA, the government has failed to properly categorize its documents or create a mechanism through which journalists can even access information. So, Hattar said, the law is in effect useless.
Nevertheless, he said, through ARIJ and some enterprising reporters in Jordan, there have been meaningful stories that push the boundaries of what Jordanians have been used to.
“It’s a nasty system,” Sabbagh added on the government’s harsh laws limiting journalists. “If all of the chief editors stood together to say ‘no,’ things could be different.”