Independent print media received a near-fatal blow in May when the government introduced "temporary" amendments to the 1993 Press and Publications Law. The press amendments, which were ratified by King Hussein on May 17 without public or parliamentary debate, prescribed sweeping restrictions on the press, granting authorities wide berth to suspend, fine, and permanently close newspapers found to be in violation of the law's broad and ambiguous content bans. By late September, just weeks before parliamentary elections on November 4, 13 weekly newspapers were suspended by the Ministry of Information for their failure to meet one of the law's more controversial provisions requiring weeklies to raise their capital base twenty-fold, from 15,000JD (US$21,135) to 300,000JD (US$422,700). By mid-November, 12 of the 13 papers had their licenses permanently revoked for noncompliance. (See "Jordan Reigns in the Press.")
Indeed, following their implementation, the press amendments had a chilling effect on the daily and weekly press. "Before the new law, we would never talk about the King but we would criticize the government for its concessions to Israel," said the publisher of a now-suspended weekly newspaper. "Now after the new law we can't say anything." The amended version of Article 40, for example, banned any "news, views, opinions, analysis, information, reports, caricatures, photos or any type of publication" that violates the already ambiguous provisions of the 1993 law. These include bans on information that "offends the King or the Royal Family," "damages national unity," "foments hatred," or insults the "Heads of State of Arab, Islamic or friendly countries." A new provision of Article 40 prohibited the publication of "false news or rumors that offend public interests or state departments," effectively granting authorities even wider latitude to haul outspoken journalists to court and to further shield government officials from criticism. "Article 40 basically means that newspapers should be a copy of the official government line," said Taher Adwan, editor in chief of the recently formed independent daily Al-Arab al-Youm. "This provision is tantamount to brandishing a sword over the heads of journalists."
Newspapers and other publications deemed by authorities to be in violation of the provisions of Articles 40 and 42 (which ban publication of court proceedings prior to final rulings) were also subject to suspension by the courts and can only resume publication at the discretion of the Minister of Information. Newspapers that violated the law for a second time within a five-year period were subjected to suspensions ranging from three to six months, and third-time offenders within the span of five years can have their license revoked by court order. Newspapers charged with violating Articles 40 and 42 were subject to harsh fines that range from JD15,000 (US$21,135) to JD25,000 (US$35,225) for each offense – a four-fold increase in the maximum fine decreed under the original law. In a move that some journalists interpreted as yet another manifestation of the government's desire to control the press, the amendments also abolished a provision in the previous law that required the state to divest its equity in the country's two leading daily newspapers, Al-Dustur and Al-Rai, by 1997.
In the months leading up to the amendments' introduction in May, the state displayed mounting intolerance for the weeklies, prosecuting and convicting a number of their editors and reporters. On January 16, Abdullah Bani 'Issa, the former editor of the weekly Al-Hiwar, was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison for "offending" King Hussein and Crown Prince Hassan and for publishing "inaccurate news" – charges that stemmed from Al-Hiwar's publication of a 1995 interview with Ata Abu al-Rishtah, a spokesman for the outlawed Islamic Liberation Party who criticized the Jordan-Israel peace agreement. Although 'Issa was eventually acquitted on appeal, the court's decision reportedly marked the first time in Jordan's history that a journalist was sentenced to prison for a publications offense.
Authorities also stepped up censorship against the foreign press, preventing the distribution of newspapers including the London-based dailies Al-Hayat and Al-Quds al-Arabi. In October alone, 15 issues of the daily Al-Quds al-Arabi were seized in 18 days, presumably for the paper's coverage of the Israeli Mossad's failed assassination attempt against Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman in September.
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