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Jousting on Jordan's 'Draconian' New Press Law

US's public silence raises queries about clampdown in 'citadel of democracy'

The telephone call came from the office of Jordan's increasingly powerful Press and Publications Department, in order to "pass on a message."

That message last April - even before a tough new press control law was enacted - was: Write only the "official" version of a triple murder in Amman of a prominent lawyer, his son, and a psychiatrist.

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Under the new law, awaiting final approval by royal decree, other kinds of subjects would be covered.

"In theory, all the papers that are writing now about the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal can be taken to court, for insulting a friendly head of state," says George Hawatmeh, head of the Arab Media Institute and former editor of the Jordan Times.

"The law is so elastic that they can shut down all the papers in the country overnight," he says.

In many other countries, American officials make strong diplomatic protests about smaller erosions of press freedom. But King Hussein is currently one of the closest US allies in the region, and in public Washington has been mute - a lack of reaction that some Jordanians interpret as an endorsement.

Some here speculate, in fact, that America and Israel are behind the law, to stifle criticism of Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with the Jewish state. But diplomats counter that American officials have expressed their concern to Jordan's leadership, out of public view.

"They don't want to weaken the king, but it is [US] duplicity and a double standard," says one Jordanian analyst, who asked not to be named.

King Hussein directed the parliament to enact a new press law, and is believed to have played a role in outlining it. And despite a growing chorus of criticism, the last government - in one of its final acts before resigning two weeks ago - pushed through the most sweeping and restrictive press law in Jordan's history.

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The Monitor last April received a phone call, but local newspapers had visits from policemen making the same demand.

And, for the most outspoken newspaper, Al-Arab al-Yawm, the point was driven home even further. Police piled out of 10 cars and surrounded the building until the next morning. Distribution of one issue was stopped until it was approved.

"The most dangerous of these actions," the newspaper wrote later, was that government press director Bilal Tal "had moved his office to one of the police headquarters to oversee this battle against Al-Arab al-Yawm."

Not every standoff between the press and government in Jordan ends in police action. But critics say that the tough new press law is a blow to democratic freedoms that is undermining Jordan's image abroad - and may keep police busy.

Signaling a possible truce, officials of Jordan's new government say they do not favor "stringent" application of the press law and that "a more civilized spirit" will prevail. But they also make clear that "the law is the law."

Jordan's lawyers' union describes that law as a "rusty dagger used to slaughter journalists," and the New York-based Human Rights Watch says it imposes a "daunting regime of censorship."

"The old mentality of controlling everything has just lain dormant for awhile, but now it is back," says Mahmoud al-Sherif, the founding editor of Jordan's oldest newspaper, Al-Dustur, speaking before the change of government.

"Israel used to be called the only democracy in the Mideast, and Jordan was vying for the title," he says.

"We always considered ourselves a citadel of good governance, human rights, and democracy, but if we lose this we will be no more than a spot on the map."

"People outside looking in are disappointed that Jordan's openness is closing so quickly," a Western diplomat says. "The law is so Draconian, who is going to violate it?"

The State Department's 1997 Human Rights Report points out that "restrictive new amendments" were first imposed on Jordan's press in May 1997. Protests by journalists then were broken up violently by the police. The government, the report notes, "also intimidates journalists to encourage self-censorship."

The provisions of the law are vaguely worded, open to selective enforcement, and carry stiff fines. Journalists can't write anything that "disparages" the king or royal family, that is at all "related to" the military, or that "contradicts" the values of the Arab Islamic nation.

Anything that "degrades" heads of Arab, Islamic, or friendly states is also forbidden.

Mr. Hawatmeh's institute aims to solve the problem pressures on the press by making better journalists.

"We are trying to raise the level of professionalism, but the way is education and training, not a harsh law like this," he says.

Many here say that Jordan's muckraking tabloids angered King Hussein with freewheeling accounts of events and palace gossip. But serious work also may be at risk.

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