Everyone is talking about Jordan - except Jordanian journalists

How the Prince Hamzah affair reveals the sharp decline in Jordan's press freedom
6 min read
12 April, 2021
In-depth: Whatever happened - a coup, sedition, or an overzealous royal family seeking to stamp out internal opposition - one thing is clear: Jordanians will be the last to know.
King Abdullah II and Prince Hamzah made their first joint public appearance on Sunday. [Getty]
And just as soon as it began, it was over. The rare spate of palace intrigue that spilled into the public eye on 4 April with the house arrest of former Crown Prince Hamzah and the detention of 18 others was resolved with a public pledge of loyalty to the king just two days later on 6 April.

Whatever happened - a coup, sedition, or an overzealous royal family seeking to stamp out internal opposition - one thing is clear: Jordanians will be the last to know. 

The news of the potentially seditious plot first broke in the Washington Post. Soon after, Prince Hamzah's video recordings were shared by the BBC. Later, US-based Axios revealed the details of the "Israeli intelligence official" Prince Hamzah was supposedly associated with, and finally UK-based Middle East Eye published the leaked audio recording of the meeting between Prince Hamzah and Jordan's military chief of staff.

Entirely absent from the discussion were Jordanian media outlets. Instead of publishing leaks, analysis or investigations, outlets parroted the official lines of the government, running headlines such as "The defeat of the delusional conspiracy" or "The plot was nipped in the bud," with pictures of the Jordanian military and flag flying high. 

The absence of local media coverage was the clearest picture of the extent of the violations that media and freedom of speech have endured since the beginning of the pandemic

To Jordanian journalists and activists, the silence of their country's media was deafening. 

"This is the worst time ever for media in Jordan," Mohammed Shamma, a correspondent with Reporters Without Borders, told The New Arab. "The absence of local media coverage [of Prince Hamzah] was the clearest picture of the extent of the violations that media and freedom of speech have endured since the beginning of the pandemic," he said. 

Shamma described the frustration of not being able to cover his own country and at being rendered "speechless," only being able to observe events and wait for information to trickle in from foreign press and activists abroad. Others simply translated information written in international media into Arabic for their audiences on social media. 

In what seemed to add insult to the injury, Jordan's Deputy Prime Minister, Ayman Safadi, gave statements to foreign press on the same day that he issued a gag order on the topic in the local media.  

Shifting red lines

Rights groups have noted the steady erosion of press and political freedom in Jordan in recent years, a process which has picked up speed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The government granted itself emergency powers early on in the pandemic, which they have used to restrict public protests, notably in the case of the closure of the teacher's syndicate in July, 2020. This year, Freedom House downgraded Jordan to "not free" from its previous status of "partially free."

Over the past year, the government has regularly issued media "gag orders" on certain topics that are deemed sensitive, such as the Prince Hamzah issue, the closure of the teacher's syndicate or even particularly brutal cases of domestic violence

So-called "red lines" which the press are not to cross have "steadily increased in recent years," according to Adam Coogle, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). "It is now rare to see critical coverage of politicians or significant criticism of government polices in the local media," Coogle added. 

Rights groups have noted the steady erosion of press and political freedom in Jordan in recent years, a process which has picked up speed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic

Though topics like the royal family are well-known to be off limits, shifting red lines have left many journalists unsure of what is still permitted speech. In April 2020, the director and the news owner of the Jordanian TV channel Roya were arrested, after the channel aired an interview with out-of-work Jordanians complaining about lockdown restrictions. Prior to the pandemic, complaints about economic conditions were commonplace across media outlets. 

To avoid stumbling over a red line, journalists and editors regularly engage in pre-emptive self-censorship. A senior journalist working in a Jordanian newspaper told The New Arab under the condition of anonymity that their editorial board "directed" them to certain sources for their coverage of the Prince Hamzah issue - as it was a sure bet that these sources would echo the pro-government line. 

The journalist later took out an interview with a source who noted that the complaints the prince was making were common refrains of the opposition movement, as they were sure that their editors would prevent it from going into print. They said that were there no red lines, they would have felt free to investigate the issue themselves and talk to many of the tribal elements who were accused of supporting Prince Hamzah. 

Read more: Jordan's authoritarian shift: The erosion of civic space since the Arab Spring

They noted that it was likely that many newsrooms - including their own - were not covering news that was in the international media and on social media networks for fear that they might be prosecuted under the cybercrime law, or for spreading rumors. 

Another editor of a Jordanian media outlet told The New Arab under the condition of anonymity that "our position as editors and journalists is that we must protect the stability of the country."

"We stuck to the official narratives because we are talking about the king and security. All these are red lines we cannot cross as mainstream media," they added.

Saud al-Sharafat, the founder and director of the Shorufat Center for Globalization and Terrorism Studies, and a local media expert, told The New Arab that the journalists' fears were well founded. "Red lines are ambiguous and are changing with time. They are set entirely by the security services and the royal court," al-Sharafat said.

There is no critical coverage of events in Jordan, because the media is historically controlled by state agencies, especially the intelligence service

"There is no critical coverage of events in Jordan, because the media is historically controlled by state agencies, especially the intelligence service. There is collusion between all parties, [including] the media and the intelligence services," he added. 

Though there are formal mechanisms to punish journalists for publishing material the government deems to have crossed a line - such as the cybercrime law - there are also a variety of informal methods the government relies on to obstruct the work of journalists.

Read more: Teachers in Jordan are asking for fair pay.
Instead, the government launched a violent crackdown

Shamma described how just two months ago he was forced to close the Amman branch of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), which he used to lead, after government regulations made it nearly impossible for the non-profit to access donor funding. 

Still, despite increasing challenges, Jordanian journalists try to find ways and avenues to inform the public and uphold their mission of serving the public interest. 

"You manoeuvre, you compromise here, you attack there. The most effective media outlets manoeuvre around the law to get information. It's not easy," the editor said. 

The ultimate victim of the gradual erosion of press freedoms, however, is the Jordanian public. A lack of critical coverage in local media pushes many to get their news from social media - where disinformation is rife. 

Feeling as if they have no better alternatives, a 27-year-old Amman resident expressed frustration with the local media's coverage and the lack of government transparency around the Prince Hamzah issue"Who has more of a right to know what's happening than the Jordanian people themselves?" they asked.

William Christou is a MENA-based journalist covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean, and a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan. Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou