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By David E. Miller
The resignation this week of Jordan's minister of information, Taher Al-Adwan, has highlighted the increasingly uneasy relationship between government and the media, as King Abdullah II struggles to address mounting demands for political reform.
The immediate reason for Al-Adwan's resignation was the king's decision to call a debate in an extraordinary parliamentary session on a new press and publications law. On Saturday, the Jordanian cabinet endorsed King Abdullah's five-year "media strategy."
The plan encourages investigative reporting through a new royal prize and offers training to journalists, but it also introduces more government oversight through calls for the adoption of a national media "code of conduct." The law urges news websites to register with the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Jordan Press Association.
Most worrying for media watchdogs, the law will set higher penalties for the publishing of what the law calls "unsubstantiated" accusations of corruption in print and on-line outlets.
"In my opinion … the proposed laws are a real blow to the reform process and the [King's] media strategy, the ink of which has barely dried," Al-Adwan wrote in his letter of resignation.
In an attempt to quell public frustration with the slow pace of reforms, King Abdullah established a National Dialogue Committee that submitted recommendations for political reforms. On June 12, the King announced that future governments would be chosen by the elected parliament, not appointed by him. However, no timetable has been given for the King's reforms, and the new media laws are widely viewed as a step back in the reform impetus.
"Independent journalists are worriedly following these new law proposals," Fahed Al-Khitan, a chief political commentator with the independent Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, told The Media Line. "It is a warning bell, a threat to independent journalism," he added, saying that owners of independent news sites and members of the Journalist Syndicate planned to meet on Sunday to discuss the crisis.
The King's run-in with the media began in February, when AFP published an unprecedented open letter by 36 Jordanian tribes accusing Queen Rania and her family of corruption. Criticism of the King and the royal family is against the law in Jordan, punishable by up to three years in prison.
On June 15, 10 men entered the AFP offices in Amman and destroyed equipment and furniture. Bureau Chief Randa Habib said threatening phone calls were made to the office after the news agency reported an attack on King Abdullah's motorcade in the southern city of Tafileh June 13. A group of journalists gathered across the bureau to protest in solidarity with AFP, and were joined by Minister Al-Adwan, himself a veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief of Al-Arab Al-Yawm.
Al-Khitan said that the new publications law sets high fines and even prison terms for "slanderous" publications and includes Internet sites, which were previously excluded from media restrictions. But he said that the public uproar at the laws following Al-Adwan's resignation could mean they will not be debated in parliament.
"The critical tone in the media significantly increased due to the journalists' sense that the government is planning imminent measures," Al-Khitan said. "There is also a substantial parliamentary bloc that opposes these laws."
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom watchdog, claimed that the government of Maaruf Al-Bakhit was increasingly harassing journalists. Since March, the organization documented threats against Al-Jazeera staffers, assaults on journalists covering pro-reform demonstrations and website hacking.
Assaf David, a Jordan expert at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem, said that Al-Adwan's resignation was detrimental to King Abdullah, since despite being an outspoken critic of the government, he was commonly viewed as a regime loyalist.
"The King is facing a critical mass of opposition from his traditional supporters," David told The Media Line. "In his letter of resignation, Al-Adwan didn't even pay the regular lip service to the King."
"It looks bad for the King when he speaks about political reform in Western media, but shuts people's mouths domestically," David added.
Khaled Al-Majali, editor-in-chief of the online Jordanian news site All of Jordan, said the new proposed laws were particularly bad for online news sites like his own.
"We have reservations about these laws," Al-Majali told The Media Line. "We refuse any article that may limit the journalist's freedom of speech. We oppose character assassination, but journalism must be free and bold. We want the new law to be clear and well-defined."
Al-Majali said that many journalists in Jordan are targeted through legal means, when their writing is defined as harmful to "state security" and they are tried in military courts.
"There is already indirect government pressure on us," he added. "No journalist should be tried in a military court."
But Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian media consultant, said that Jordan was softer than most Arab countries when dealing with journalists.
"The government deliberately doesn't want to clamp down too hard on the media, for fear of a public backlash that will be worse than the original publication," he told The Media Line.
Arieh O'Sullivan contributed to this report.
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