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RSF: Jordanian authorities ‘acrimonious’ since cartoon controversy began

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is apparently not satisfied with the Jordanian government’s handling of the Prophet caricature controversy. In a press release, RSF said:

The Jordanian authorities have been among the most acrimonious since the start of this controversy. Ten days ago, the Jordanian parliament called for the cartoonists to be punished. Now the judicial authorities are getting involved and have had a journalist imprisoned.

For my part, I’m really quite annoyed with the decision jailing the two Jordanian journalists, even though I understand that they violated the Press and Publication Law by publishing such religiously offensive cartoons. That said, I don’t see how you can justify the very presence of a press law in a supposedly democratic country. Arresting journalists and throwing them in jail before they get a fair trial is surely a step backwards in the kingdom’s supposed march towards a free press.

But the most upsetting thing for me is that these actions were taken while we Jordanians are being showered with promises of a free press via the highly anticipated reform program: The National Agenda. I was more optimistic several months ago, particularly after the launch of a campaign to end journalist imprisonment in Jordan. I truly believed Jordan was on the path towards embracing reform. Now it seems things are going in reverse.

In case you are wondering what became of the two journalists, well, they were re-arrested after an appeal from a civil prosecutor on Monday. This was one day after a judge released them pending their respective trials. The two could spend three years behind bars if found guilty. "It will be awkward that two editors walk freely while we are leading a national campaign condemning the Europeans who published the cartoons," said Deputy Hisham Qaisi, a member of the Legal Committee at the House in an article published the Jordan Times.

Jordanian blogger Khalaf has an excellent post about the emergence of a "slippery slope" that is developing in Jordan following the cartoon controversy. In his post he highlights recent calls to censor websites in Irbid Internet centers. These censored sites include "those that evoke sexual instincts, degrade religious feelings, or the system of government or encourage the use of illegal drugs."

Kahlaf makes a link between this call for censorship and the publication of the cartoons by the two Jordanian editors. He also mentions that some MPs have asked the government (in Arabic) to "reject the American pressure to license new Christian groups." Somehow MPs in their twisted logic see some sort of link between "new Christian groups" and the publication of these cartoons. Kahlaf ends with a powerful observation:

Of course, as this undemocratic rush continues, we can expect a lot of add-ons that would involve wish lists of all those involved. After terrorist attacks in Amman killed more than 60 innocent victims … people were afraid that the government would use this to limit freedom of speech. What the terrorists couldn’t do was achieved by some cartoons. Talk about [a] sense of proportion.

Well said, Kahlaf. Well said!

UPDATE: According to The Jordan Times, a number of international and national press watchdogs have also shown concern over the journalists’ arrest:

“We are deeply concerned by the jailing of Jihad Momani and Hashem Khalidi and the possibility that they could serve a lengthy prison sentences for what they published,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "While we recognize the anger this controversy has caused, journalists should not be jailed for what they publish, even when it is considered offensive," she added.

The Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) also denounced the arrest, saying it was a "violation of international standards of freedom of the press … We totally reject any offense against the Prophet and affirm that any offense or attack on religions contradicts human rights and freedom of expression," a CDFJ statement said. Also Tuesday, a group of 14 local journalists signed a letter expressing concern over the journalists’ arrest, agreeing to launch a campaign to collect signatures pressing for the editors’ release, according to the statement.

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