Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Jordan’s civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 due to a series of arrests that brought citizens’ right to speak freely into question.
New legislation that took effect in Jordan in 2008 led to a significant decrease in the number of political parties, though the consolidation was seen as a potential boon to the remaining parties. Separately, the government proposed a civil society law that would seriously impede the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Restrictions on freedom of expression led to several arrests and jail sentences during the year.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, known as Transjordan until 1950, was established as a League of Nations mandate under British control in 1921 and won full independence in 1946. The turbulent 46-year reign of King Hussein, which began in 1953, featured a massive influx of Palestinian refugees, the loss of the West Bank to Israel in 1967, and numerous assassinations and coup attempts. Political parties were banned in 1956, and the parliament was either suspended or emasculated by government intervention in the electoral process. With political and civil liberties tightly restricted, Hussein proved adept at co-opting his political opponents. After economic austerity measures in the late 1980s sparked rioting and pressure for greater freedom, the government progressively eased restrictions on civil liberties, though the reform process suffered some reversals in the mid-1990s.
By the time Crown Prince Abdullah succeeded his father as king in 1999, the kingdom faced severe economic problems. The expected “peace dividend” from Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel had failed to improve conditions for most of the population, and Abdullah began major economic reforms. Meanwhile, additional restrictions on the media, public protests, and civil society activity were imposed after groups including Islamists, leftists, and Jordanians of Palestinian descent staged demonstrations to demand the annulment of the 1994 treaty and express support for the Palestinian uprising (intifada) against Israel that began in 2000.
In 2001, Abdullah dissolved the parliament, postponed elections scheduled for November, and replaced elected municipal councils with state-appointed local committees. For more than two years, he ruled by decree, issuing more than 200 “temporary laws” that weakened due process and restricted freedoms of expression and assembly.
The king allowed reasonably free and transparent—though not fair—parliamentary and municipal elections in 2003. In an informal understanding with the palace, dissident leftist and Islamist groups gained limited freedom of expression and political participation, and agreed to curtail their agitation against Jordan’s pro-U.S. foreign policy.
After terrorist bombings struck Amman in November 2005, Abdullah replaced his security advisers, dissolved the Senate, and appointed a new cabinet in 2006. In August of that year, the parliament approved a new antiterrorism law that gave military courts jurisdiction over terrorism cases and permitted surveillance of terrorism suspects and the detention of suspects for up to 30 days. The government also announced a major political reform plan in 2006, which called for equal rights for women and increased freedom of association. Though there was progress in 2007 on new legislation governing political parties, essential electoral reforms continued to stall.
Hostile rhetoric between the government and the Islamic Action Front (IAF), Jordan’s main opposition movement, increased ahead of municipal and parliamentary elections in 2007. Security forces arrested nine IAF members between May and June for “threatening national security.” The IAF withdrew from the July municipal polls in protest, but won 2 out of the 965 contested seats. Only 6 of 22 IAF candidates won seats in the November parliamentary elections, which were marred by irregularities.
A controversial law on political parties took effect in 2008. It raised from 50 to 500 the number of members necessary for a party to register, and increased the number of districts from which those members must be drawn. In April, the Interior Ministry dissolved 17 political parties that did not meet the new requirements; another five merged with other parties. The changes brought the number of registered parties down to 14, from the previous 37. While some analysts suggested that the new law would allow parties to consolidate their power and play a larger role in Jordanian politics, others saw the reform as profoundly undemocratic.
Jordan is not an electoral democracy. King Abdullah II holds broad executive powers, appoints the prime minister and cabinet, and may dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the cabinet at his discretion. The 110-seat lower house of the National Assembly, elected through universal adult suffrage, may approve, reject, or amend legislation proposed by the cabinet, but is limited in its ability to initiate legislation. It cannot enact laws without the assent of the 55-seat upper house, or Senate, whose members are appointed by the king. Members of both houses serve four-year terms. Regional governors are appointed by the central government.
The electoral system is heavily skewed toward the monarchy’s traditional base of support. Voters in the 45 multiseat parliamentary districts each choose a single candidate, which favors tribal and family ties over political and ideological affiliations. In addition, rural districts with populations of Transjordanian origin are overrepresented relative to urban districts, where most Jordanians of Palestinian descent reside. Activists have repeatedly called for a new electoral law based on proportional representation, but the government did not act on its pledges to reform the law before the 2007 elections. A separate law passed in 2007 cleared the way for that year’s municipal elections, in which all mayors and council members were elected, though an exception for Amman meant that half of that city’s council members would continue to be appointed.
Corruption persists in the executive and legislative branches, though the authorities have made progress in combating it in recent years. The government is sensitive to public charges of corruption. An independent Anticorruption Commission was established in 2007, and it sent 21 cases involving public figures to the courts in the first half of the year. The commission also published an anticorruption strategy for 2008–12. The head of the royal court, Basem Awadallah, was forced to resign in September 2008 for reasons including the surfacing of corruption allegations. Jordan was ranked 47 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is restricted, and those who violate redlines regarding the royal family and certain societal taboos face arrest, causing widespread self-censorship. A dual French-Jordanian citizen was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison, later reduced to three months, in March 2008. He had insulted the king and the country in a taxi and again at a police station. Also during the year, a Jordanian poet whose love poems including Koranic verses was arrested and accused of apostasy, and the prime minister’s office forced the head of Jordan’s National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) to resign after the center published negative reports on the state of Jordan’s prisons and the fairness of the 2007 elections.
While changes to the press and publications law in 2007 abolished imprisonment as a penalty for press offenses, journalists are still jailed under the penal code. In two separate cases in March 2008, five journalists received three-month sentences for “insulting the judiciary and commenting on its rulings” and for insulting government officials. The media enjoyed more freedom to criticize the government and public figures while the Awadallah case was unfolding. However, this appeared to be the result of intragovernmental politics rather than press liberalization; Awadallah is a neoliberal of Palestinian descent, whereas members of the intelligence services that monitor the press are generally more conservative and of Transjordanian descent.
The government has issued several private broadcasting licenses, but most broadcast news outlets remain under state control. Satellite dishes are widespread, giving most residents access to foreign media. Jordan’s first private television station, ATV, was approved in late 2005, though its planned launch has been delayed since early 2007. While there are dozens of private newspapers and magazines, the government has broad powers to close them. Authorities are routinely tipped off about potentially offensive articles by informers at printing presses, and editors frequently come under pressure to remove such material. Intelligence agents often call journalists with warnings about their writing. In October 2008, the editor of a privately owned weekly was arrested for insulting the governor of Amman. He was released from prison in November after paying a 3,000 dinar fine (approximately US$4200), but still faced charges of inflaming sectarian strife and sowing national discord at year’s end. While the government denies restricting access to the internet, and in fact actively promotes it, websites airing critical views have been blocked in the past. The Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information reported in March 2008 that new regulations had forced internet cafes in Jordan to install cameras to monitor users.
Islam is the state religion. Sunni Muslims constitute 92 percent of the population, but Christians and Jews are recognized as religious minorities and can worship freely. Baha’is and Druze are allowed to practice their faiths, but they are not officially recognized. The government appoints Islamic clergy, pays their salaries, and monitors sermons at mosques, where political activity is banned. Preachers must obtain written government permission to lead services or teach the Koran. Only state-appointed councils may issue religious edicts, or fatwas, and it is illegal to criticize these rulings. Christian missionaries have reported that 27 missionary families were denied residency permits or deported in 2007.
Academic freedom is generally respected, and Jordanians openly discuss political and societal developments. However, certain limits remain in place, and there have been reports of a heavy intelligence presence on some university campuses. In September 2008, the vice-dean of a private university was arrested for allegedly harassing and verbally abusing students of Transjordanian descent and insulting the king.
Freedom of assembly is heavily restricted. A draft lawwould keep the requirement that organizers of meetings obtain permission from provincial governors, but it would reduce the advance notice for seeking permission from 72 to 48 hours and require governors to respond to such requests within 24 hours. Permission to assemble is sometimes denied. Demonstrations protesting price hikes and Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip were banned in 2008, as was a women’s charity breakfast and an academic workshop on the effects of lifting fuel subsidies.
Freedom of association is limited. While dozens of licensed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely, the government in 2008 introduced new legislation that would severely limit their independence. Under the measure, the government would have supervisory power over NGO budgets and the authority to reject foreign funding. It would also ban NGOs from “religious or sectarian” activities, and NGOs would have to submit their future plans for line-by-line government approval. The legislation was not approved by the end of the year.
Workers have the right to bargain collectively but must receive government permission to strike. More than 30 percent of the workforce is organized into 17 unions. The government has threatened to dissolve the Professional Associations Council (PAC), which has mounted protests in the past, and a draft law barring professional associations from engaging in politics is awaiting decision in the parliament.
The judiciary is subject to executive influence through the Justice Ministry and the Higher Judiciary Council, most of whose members are appointed by the king. While most trials in civilian courts are open and procedurally sound, the State Security Court (SSC) may close its proceedings to the public. A temporary law promulgated in 2001 allows the prime minister to refer any case to the SSC and denies the right of appeal to people convicted by the SSC of misdemeanors.
Jordanian citizens enjoy little protection from arbitrary arrest and detention. Under the constitution, suspects may be detained for up to 48 hours without a warrant and up to 10 days without formal charges being filed; courts routinely grant prosecutors 15-day extensions of this deadline. Even these protections are denied to suspects referred to the SSC, who are often held in lengthy pretrial detention and refused access to legal counsel until just before trial. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture found in 2006 that “torture is systematically practiced” by the General Intelligence Department (GID), which interrogates suspects to obtain confessions in SSC cases. Nearly every defendant tried by the SSC has claimed they were tortured.
Prison conditions are poor, and inmates are reportedly subject to severe beatings and other abuse by guards. In April 2008, inmates in two jails set fire to their cells and clashed with security forces. Three people were killed and over 100 others were wounded in two days of riots. The NCHR attributed the prisoner violence to poor treatment and said inmates “were severely beaten by police members even after the riots subsided.” Labor laws do not protect foreign workers. Freedom of movement and travel is generally respected.
Women enjoy equal political rights but face legal discrimination in matters involving inheritance and divorce—which fall under the jurisdiction of Sharia (Islamic law) courts—and child custody. Government pensions and social security benefits also favor men. A 2002 temporary law granting women the right to initiate divorce proceedings has been rejected repeatedly by the legislature, but remains in effect. Although women constitute only 14 percent of the workforce, the government has made efforts to increase the number of women in the civil service. Women are guaranteed a quota of six seats in the lower house of parliament and, under the 2007 municipalities law, 20 percent of the seats in municipal councils. Article 98 of the penal code allows for lenient treatment of those who commit a crime in a “state of fit or fury” resulting from an unlawful or dangerous act on the part of the victim. In practice, this provision is often applied to benefit men who commit “honor crimes” against women. In some cases, an administrative governor may incarcerate a woman for her “own protection” without benefit of due process; some women have spent years in prison because they have no safe alternative. In 2008, however, the parliament passed a bill imposing penalties, including jail time, on perpetrators of domestic violence. The law also allows authorities to detain alleged abusers for 24 hours to protect victims and permits victims to seek compensation for physical harm or psychological abuse.