International rights groups denounced Jordan on Wednesday for charging a news website editor with anti-regime incitement after publishing a report on a graft probe into a $7 billion housing project.
The detention of Jamal Muhtaseb, chief editor of Gerasa News, “is a serious violation of Jordanian law and freedom of information,” said Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
“His reporting of this corruption case has been in the public interest,” RSF said on its website.
For its part, the New-York based Human Rights Watch warned that Amman “risks earning a reputation for repression and intolerance” by arresting Muhtaseb.
Muhtaseb was arrested and charged on Monday after a report on his website quoted an unnamed lawmaker as claiming “lower house deputies had received royal directives not to indict a former minister for alleged graft.”
Last year, the government opened an investigation into the huge housing project for low-income citizens after calls by parliamentarians to probe suspected corruption.
The military state security court has remanded Muhtaseb in custody for 14 days pending trial, and he faces 15 years in jail if convicted.
Gerasa News reporter Sahar Muhtaseb, sister of Muhtaseb, was also charged and arrested in the same case but later released on bail of 5,000 dinars ($7,000/5,300 euros).
“Using a state security court to try a journalist is completely illegal under Jordanian law and is indicative of the government’s nervousness and determination to suppress freedom of information in this affair,” RSF said.
The court’s jurisdiction includes crimes that are deemed harmful to Jordan’s internal and external security.
“We call for (Muhtaseb’s) immediate release and the withdrawal of all the charges,” RSF added.
Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at HRW, said “Jordan cannot claim to be making democratic reforms while prosecutors hunt down journalists doing their job.”
“Jordan’s parliament should eliminate penal code articles that punish non-violent speech offences, and in the meantime, authorities should instruct prosecutors to stop bringing charges under those articles.”
HRW said Muhtasab’s case is the latest in a series “in which people have faced charges for speech or demonstrations deemed critical of the government,” including a group of pro-reform demonstrators and a outspoken former lawmakers.
It added that this is “a pattern that undermines the credibility of Jordan’s reform efforts.”
“Jordan’s talk of reform is meaningless as long as the law deprives citizens of meeting and speaking freely, especially about politics and their leaders,” Wilcke said.
The powerful Islamic Action Front, the political arm of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, warned that “freedoms are retreating” in the kingdom.
“Targeting journalists must stop and the state security court must be dissolved,” the IAF said on Wednesday, demanding the government release Muhtaseb.
Jordan’s Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists and the country’s press union have condemned Muhtaseb’s detention.
And journalists held a sit-in to demand Muhtaseb’s immediate release.