COVID-19, a pretext to muzzle the media?

Association

In early January 2020, Jordan introduced a new mechanism and a specialised committee for foreign financing. Announced by the Director of the Associations Registry at the Ministry of Social Development, the new mechanism aims to accelerate the examination of funding procedures within 30 days of receiving the application. The mechanism gives the committee 20 days to study the funding request, to align the project with national needs and assess if there are similar projects to reduce inconsistencies. Thereafter the request is submitted to the Council of Ministers for assessment and a decision is to be taken within 10 days. In addition, an electronic mechanism is being developed to ensure the automation of procedures for requests for funding approval.

In a statement, the Arab NGO Network for Development Civic Space website welcomed the government’s decision to streamline funding processes.

“In principle, any step toward simplifying access to financing and building partnerships aimed at promoting sustainable development and human rights is welcome.”

However, Phenix Center Director Ahmad Awad noted that the mechanism is inconsistent with the essence of the right to independence of civil society and recalled Jordan’s state obligations towards the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

“The fundamental idea behind preserving the independence of civil society is to enable it to operate with a different vision from the government’s vision, and this added value to the existence of civil society," - Ahmad Awad.

Expression

On 19th March 2020, international experts issued a statement stressing the nexus between the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the access to information. They noted that:

“Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. The right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, through any media, applies to everyone, everywhere, and may only be subject to narrow restrictions.”

However, following the emergency law issued on 17th March 2020 and the enactment of the Defence Law No. 13 of 1992, decrees issued by the Prime Minister in Jordan brought measures that restrict access to information.

Within the measures taken under the state of emergency, the printing of newspapers was suspended on the ground that they may help spread the virus.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) expressed concern about the measures taken by Middle East governments to clamp down on coverage during the pandemic.

“The coronavirus crisis must not be used by Middle Eastern governments as a pretext for tightening their grip on the media and clamping down on information. The measures that are taken to control the epidemic must not in any way affect journalists’ work,” - Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk.

Moreover, the 15th April 2020 decree prohibits “publishing, re-publishing or circulating any news about the epidemic in order to terrify people or cause panic among them via media, telephone or social media.”

As reported by Jordan Times, the Public Security Department’s (PSD) Cyber Crimes Unit announced that it has started procedures to “arrest whoever creates, publishes or circulates fake news and hand them to the relevant justice authorities.” The unit asked social media users to “think well and with the utmost responsibility before publishing or circulating any pictures or videos that might provoke panic, especially in these delicate circumstances that Jordan is going through.”

The measures imposed, which curtail freedom of access to information and freedom of expression, were criticised by international civil society groups.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement, warning that the pandemic should not be used as a pretext to limit freedom of expression.

“The Jordanian government has acted decisively to protect its citizens and residents from Covid-19, but recent measures have created the impression that it won’t tolerate criticising the government’s response to the pandemic. The authorities should protect Jordanians’ ability to discuss Covid-19 online and share news and concerns without fear of arrest,” - Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Several cases of restrictions on freedom of expression were noted during the reporting period, including:

  • Roya TV's General Manager Fares Sayegh and News Director Mohammad Alkhalidi were arrested after interrogation by the Public Prosecution on 9th April 2020 in relation to a news report which was aired on Roya TV, published on the Roya News website and social media pages. The news report dealt with the economic impact of a lockdown in Jordan. The two journalists were later released on bail. When the two journalists were arrested, RSF issued a statement calling for their immediate release.
“During the pandemic, journalists must be able to report the reality at the grassroots without risk of being held responsible for what interviewees say or without risk of any kind of external interference."
  • As documented by Human Rights Watch, on 14th April 2020, authorities detained Salim Akash, 40, a Jordan-based Bangladeshi journalist, in relation to his coverage on the impact that lockdown measures are having on Bangladeshi workers in Jordan. Akash was told that he was being arrested for ‘violating a serious law.’ His news report was shared widely on Facebook.