Monday, March 7, 2011

Jordanian Journalists Call for Press Freedom

by Joel Greenberg

AMMAN, JORDAN - In the first protest of its kind here, journalists from state-controlled media demonstrated Monday for press freedom and demanded the ouster of the editor-in-chief of the main government-controlled newspaper.

"We're fed up, we've reached the point where there's no turning back," said Amer Smadi, a veteran broadcaster currently with state radio and formerly a news anchor on Jordanian television. "We have nothing to fear now. I've been waiting to say this all my life."

Inspired by the anti-government uprisings sweeping the Arab world and mounting calls for change at home, about 200 journalists from official and independent media rallied near the headquarters of Al-Rai, the main state-controlled paper. They then marched to the building, shouting slogans and calling for the dismissal of the government-appointed editor-in-chief, Abdel Wahab Zgheilat.

"We want press freedom, not government censorship!," they chanted. "We want the liberation of the media! Self-censorship destroys professionalism!"

A statement read to the crowd demanded a halt to "intervention in the media" by the Jordanian government and security agencies, and a change of the state-controlled press "to independent newspapers."

In an apparent sign of greater official tolerance of such protests, Information Minister Taher Adwan, a former newspaper editor, arrived at the rally and expressed his support, rejecting "intervention by any party" in media work. "There can be no economic or political reform if we don't start with the media," he said.

Al-Rai and other government-controlled newspapers have responded to growing protests calling for limits on the powers of King Abdullah II by highlighting gatherings where Jordanian tribes and other groups have pledged their allegiance to the monarch.

After thousands marched in central Amman on Friday demanding "reform of the regime," Al-Rai ran a headline that combined news of the loyalty pledges with the protest. Two pictures of equal size showed the crowds of anti-government protesters and a small group of demonstrators in support of the king.

Sami Zubeidi, a columnist at Al-Rai, said that his work was regularly censored, and he accused Zgheilat, the editor, of taking orders from the Jordanian intelligence service. "I have to practice self-censorship," he said. "I know our newspaper's threshold." He said he had been called in for questioning several times by the authorities.

"In the media our king says that the 'sky is the limit' for free speech, and in reality he lets his security agencies stifle the press," Zubeidi said. "He tells the intelligence to keep a low ceiling on the media. It's a myth that we have a parliament, a constitution and laws."

In an interview in his office, Zgheilat denied that he was in regular contact with the intelligence services or that he practices political censorship, saying he only intervened when columnists engaged in personal attacks. "We know the limits of freedom of the press," he said. "There are issues that you can't touch: the regime and the military. These are the rules. I don't need to get orders for that."

Smadi, the veteran broadcaster, said that in 20 years of work at Jordanian television, there was "no freedom to say what we want," but now there were signs of change. A mere three months ago, he said, the journalists' protest could have been violently broken up by the police.

"We don't know what will happen six months from now," he added, suggesting that a crackdown was also possible. "But if I have to end my career, at least I will be saying something I believe."

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Joel Greenberg

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