Jousting on Jordan's 'Draconian' New Press Law US's Public Silence Raises Queries about Clampdown in 'Citadel of Democracy'

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The telephone call came from the office of Jordan's increasingly powerful Press and Publications Department, in order to "pass on a message."

That message last April - even before a tough new press control law was enacted - was: Write only the "official" version of a triple murder in Amman of a prominent lawyer, his son, and a psychiatrist.

Under the new law, awaiting final approval by royal decree, other kinds of subjects would be covered.

"In theory, all the papers that are writing now about the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal can be taken to court, for insulting a friendly head of state," says George Hawatmeh, head of the Arab Media Institute and former editor of the Jordan Times.

"The law is so elastic that they can shut down all the papers in the country overnight," he says.

In many other countries, American officials make strong diplomatic protests about smaller erosions of press freedom. But King Hussein is currently one of the closest US allies in the region, and in public Washington has been mute - a lack of reaction that some Jordanians interpret as an endorsement.

Some here speculate, in fact, that America and Israel are behind the law, to stifle criticism of Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with the Jewish state. But diplomats counter that American officials have expressed their concern to Jordan's leadership, out of public view.

"They don't want to weaken the king, but it is {US} duplicity and a double standard," says one Jordanian analyst, who asked not to be named.

King Hussein directed the parliament to enact a new press law, and is believed to have played a role in outlining it. And despite a growing chorus of criticism, the last government - in one of its final acts before resigning two weeks ago - pushed through the most sweeping and restrictive press law in Jordan's history.

The Monitor last April received a phone call, but local newspapers had visits from policemen making the same demand.

And, for the most outspoken newspaper, Al-Arab al-Yawm, the point was driven home even further. Police piled out of 10 cars and surrounded the building until the next morning. Distribution of one issue was stopped until it was approved.

"The most dangerous of these actions," the newspaper wrote later, was that government press director Bilal Tal "had moved his office to one of the police headquarters to oversee this battle against Al-Arab al-Yawm."

Not every standoff between the press and government in Jordan ends in police action. …